The relationship between democracy and Islam always arouses a lot of debate and discussion among academics and ordinary people. It is often assumed that Islam has nothing to do with democracy that it is inimical to democracy and civil society. This assertion is discussed within a larger context that Muslim societies lack attributes of change, freedom, justice and human rights. These relationships may be examined against the backdrop of the end of the Cold war about the bi-polar rivalry that brought with it the euphoria of sweeping wave of democratisation.
It is believed that galvanisation of support and radicalisation of the otherwise socially conservative traditions into powerful currents in the African, Arab and Muslim worlds towards the end of the last millennium needs serious analysis away from parochialism and dwarf lenses of biases and forgone conclusions which perceive Islam in light of the personalised application of law. They need to be examined critically in terms of the socio-economic, cultural and political dynamics and circumstances.
The debate arises in order to critically examine the relationship between what “liberal” democratic values are and the Muslim conception of governance on one hand. I will attempt to understand whether or not Islam is antithetical to tolerance and social justice on the other.
I can claim that the so -called “political Islam” is not a monolithic, purist, homogeneous, one-dimensional thing that is bent on being anti (West). However, it is a discourse that centres Islam within the political order. Max Weber has made somewhat similar observation as to the relationship between the spiritual reform of Protestant Reformation and Capitalism. This has spurred the need for discussing the affinity between forms of religious thought, and socio- economic and socio-political structures.
Understandably, the most abstract speculative ideas being political, economic and social may not necessarily be borne in a vacuum. They are mostly linked with conceptual, historical and political precedents and processes. Democracy itself though not monolithic, one may discern from it many trends and features. It has developed more than two millennia by philosophers and thinkers. It has acquired diverse meanings and has referred to different historical settings and ideals. It is recalled that the form of democracy in the Greek City-States was direct because of the small size of the population, which is not necessarily tenable in all situations and in everywhere. As such democracy is in contradistinction to monarchic and aristocratic rule. One can therefore easily discern real democracies from those that claim to be, as one can reveal their fragility and vulnerability.
John Locke of England expounded on the themes of human rights, individual liberty, and minimal government, sanctity of life and property and toleration. However, it was Baron de Montesquieu of France who further developed the institutional framework for such a representative government. He delineated the three arms of government: the executive, the judiciary and the legislature in order to have the system of checks and balance . In this way, the absolutist monarch who claimed ultimate authority on human law could be abolished gradually and the attainment of political equality, liberty, self-development and common interest could be promoted.
Democracy is not merely symbolic procedural matters. On the contrary there are substantive issues attached to it. It is a pluralistic system of power whereby decisions within civil society and the state are made by all members. It is not looked at simply from the perspective of party politics and majority rule. Democracy encompasses matters related to equality, the creation of distributive justice, empowerment of the powerless and decentralisation of power.
By necessity, one may examine if democracy is essentially anti-discourse “religion”. Interestingly, Islam calls for an equilibrium that the human conscience stands firmly knowing the secrets of the universe, purpose of life and the consequences of actions. Thus, it is required of people to know the laws of the universe, the laws of life and the potential of the earth in their service. These in their nature are rational and human per excellence. This also necessitates that people should be connected to Allah with spiritually and emotionally. There is also a balance between the sources of knowledge be it from the revelation, reason or combination, as an important Islamic epistemological basis.
Arguably, democracy is not a static concept. Rather, it is dynamic and acclimatises itself to new realities and circumstances. Democracy is a combination of the reflective and the concrete in the political theorising of philosophers over two millennia on the nature of governance (polity). Consultation (shura) is an important discourse in Islam and indeed in the Qur’an as a whole chapter is dedicated to consultation (al-Shura). It is a socio-political necessity in order to promote engagement and participation in the processes of decision-making. The ramifications of shura are far-reaching as it nurtures trust between the ruler and the subjects, and in the society as a whole. After all, democracy and politics are about good management of the affairs of the state by encouraging power-sharing, distribution of limited resources and allocation of tasks and responsibilities.
In the end, I claim that it will be difficult to debunk moral debate in political and social issues. However, religion and politics cannot be equated. Both liberal democratic paradigm and Muslim thought of governance seek to bring about prosperity for all. While the former is based on pure human rationality, the latter is hinged on both reason and revelation. However, it is not completely true and accurate to claim that the liberal democratic principles are free from an ideology.
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