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Laith Kubba, "Islam and Liberal Democracy: Recognizing Pluralism," Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 86-89


In their respective essays, Bernard Lewis and Robin Wright ask how much capacity Muslim societies have for movement toward democracy, and how far democracy and Islam are compatible. Lewis broaches these questions by considering the practice of Islam among Muslims at large, while Wright concentrates on the views of two contemporary Muslim thinkers.

The question of Islam's compatibility with liberal democracy can be viewed from varying perspectives. Current controversies among both Muslims and Westerners about the relationship between Islam as a revealed scriptural religion and democracy as a specific form of modern government imply that Islam promotes a specific format for politics and government. They imply as well that most of the governments under which Muslims have lived so far have been founded on Islamic principles. In many respects, it can be easily shown that neither the way of life of most Muslims nor the bulk of current Islamic writings is compatible with liberal democracy.

Islam teaches principles of freedom, human dignity, equality, governance by contract, popular sovereignty, and the rule of law that are compatible with but not identical to the cognate principles that belong to the intellectual heritage of liberal democracy. A look at history suggests that the main obstacles facing Muslims in their attempts to achieve open political systems and democratic governments are 1) a deeply rooted authoritarian political culture, and 2) manipulated interpretations of the Koran. [End Page 86]

The prospects for liberal democracy in Muslim countries can best be gauged by examining the development of their political culture. While the democratic polities of the West have their roots in a centuries-long process of evolution, modern political systems in Muslim countries have undergone a series of abrupt changes since the end of the old caliphate in 1924 and the coming of independence in the post­World War II era.

Cultures and Traditions

Because Muslims often consider the early traditions of Islam to be part of the original message of revelation, they typically look to the way Muslims lived in the past rather than attempt to construct new ways based on both the original teachings of Islam and the realities of modern life. Although the meaning of Islam cannot be limited to the perceptions of Muslims or equated with their practices, neither can it be understood separately from these perceptions and practices.

Islamic teachings have shaped the history and political culture of hundreds of millions of people over fourteen centuries, and have embraced a vast range of nations, cultures, sects, and schools of thought. Islam is potentially available to be claimed by all Muslims, including modernists and traditionalists, conservatives and liberals, rulers and oppositionists, Sunnis and Shi'ites, and so on. While it is true that Muslim rulers since the days of the caliphs have sought legitimacy from Islamic tradition, it is also true that this same stream of tradition has been invoked to empower opposition groups, justify violent takeovers, mobilize the masses in national struggles, call for "holy wars," and more.

From earliest times, tribalism has marked Muslim political life. Later there came a chronic tendency to underappreciate constitutional and representative governance, and a consequent difficulty in developing democratic institutions and safeguards such as checks and balances. Historically, Muslims neither participated in choosing their rulers nor had a right to representation in government. Groups or individuals who seized power by force seldom met much in the way of popular resistance. This political passivity has its roots in religious teachings, and has gone far to perpetuate the tradition of authoritarian government in the Islamic world.

There were always Muslim thinkers who criticized overly narrow interpretations of the Koran and the negative side of traditional practices, but none ever had much success. Soroush and the many other thinkers who are striving on behalf of a broader and more enlightened understanding of the Islamic message belong to this line. Ghannouchi, meanwhile, like other leaders of Islamic parties, is attempting to go beyond dogma, ritual, rulings, and accidents of historical circumstance to outline a conceptual framework in which Islam's basic understandings [End Page 87] are elaborated and brought together in new ways in order to form a cohesive worldview that transcends classical limits on the interpretation of the Koran. Like their tenth-century predecessors who pondered religious questions and commented on the works of the great Greek philosophers, the new thinkers may be expected to have a limited effect on traditions of religious interpretation, and even less on the power structures and political attitudes of their own day.

The increasing numbers of Islamists who adhere to a modern interpretation of Islam form a loose-knit group with little chance of making an impact in the short term. The long term is a different matter, however. Given time, these Islamists could become a stabilizing and constructive force with great capacities for developing public institutions and modernizing Muslim societies. Although liberal Islamists are part of the mainstream of the Islamic movement, their presence has not yet been institutionalized. They receive neither support from governments nor endorsement from the traditional or radical political groups. Traditionalists see them as "Westernized," radicals see them as "compromised," and authoritarian rulers see them as "dangerous."

Interpretations and Manipulations

The turbulence and unrest that have touched so many Muslim countries in recent years have been forcing Muslim thinkers to reassess the whole of their heritage and question their own understanding of Islam. This is not without risk. Fundamentalism, with its promise of a simple answer to the complex problems of the Muslim world, grew out of such reassessment. Yet the experience of Iran and the Sudan has shown that fundamentalism-in-power cannot solve every problem, and actually complicates the challenge of implementing Islamic values in public life.

Although Muslims believe that the Koran is the only source of divine revelation (a revelation explained and implemented by the Prophet Mohammed), history has witnessed Muslims differing among themselves on questions of who rightly possesses authority, meaning both the right to interpret Islam and the right to rule other Muslims. The first generation of Muslims did not agree on a single procedure for electing a caliph, which led to violent takeovers and internal wars.

Today, Islam is interpreted by theological schools that have a limited role in running public institutions. Since these schools are apolitical by tradition, the interpretation of the political aspects of Islam has recently been claimed by combinations of activist clerics and political groups. Recent attempts by religious leaders or Islamic parties to implement Islam in public life have produced dismal results. These failures, in turn, have sparked debate among Islamists about the possibility of interpreting Islamic values in ways compatible with democracy, human rights, and [End Page 88] political pluralism. This debate was long overdue, for it was the absence of genuine scholarly discourse concerning the relationship between Islam and democratic politics that gave the most vocal and politicized groups a free hand to interpret the political and social dimensions of Islam in ways that served their own political agendas--a phenomenon seen most prominently in Iran, Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt, and the Sudan.

Incumbent governments throughout the Muslim world are reacting to the challenges of defining Islam's role in public life by setting up subservient religious bodies with designated authority to interpret Islam. In a move clearly designed to defuse the use of Islam by the opposition, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia recently set up a council of ulema (religious scholars) under the supervision of his brother Prince Sultan. Recently, King Hassan II of Morocco expressed his concern about the strife between Islamists and the government in Algeria and proposed the establishment of a supreme Islamic religious authority similar to the Vatican. Another example comes from Iran, where, following the recent death of Grand Ayatollah Araki, the Islamic Republic decided to name the head of the state to the post, thus combining religious and political authority unambiguously in one personage.

The stance that politicized Islamic movements take on the issues of accountable governance and modernization can often be hard to pin down. Often, rival Islamist groups work at cross-purposes and prevent their countries from developing sound political and economic programs. In order to accommodate the diversity of opinion among Muslims, the Islamists will have to learn to accept a system based on pluralism, democracy, and the separation of public administration from theological institutions. The Islamic parties in Turkey and Malaysia already seem to have learned this lesson. Islamic values have great potential to contribute to the overall development of the Muslim world, but only if they can be cultivated in ways that do not undermine prospects for democracy.

The inevitable advance of technology is bound to have a dramatic impact on all cultures, Muslim cultures included. New means of rapid, accessible, and long-distance communication mean that followers of Islam will interact with one another and with people from other backgrounds at an unprecedented rate. As Muslims devise strategies for economic growth in a competitive world and redefine their priorities, their outlook will shift from the abstract concepts and values of Islam to the realities of the Muslim world. They will continue to turn to Islam as a source of personal and communal identity and moral guidance, but they will also critically assess the legacy handed down by previous generations who may have narrowed Islam in ways that had less to do with the essence of the faith than with historical accidents and parochial circumstances. The way to a better future lies through the recognition of pluralism, the adoption of open political systems, and the establishment of democratic governments throughout the Islamic world.


Laith Kubba is director of the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue in London. He was an organizer of the Iraqi National Congress, founded in 1992 at Vienna, Austria, by more than 70 delegates from 33 groups opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein. He was previously director of the Arabic weekly Alalam and the English monthly Africa Events.

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