by Abdelmajid Charfi
Ever since September 11, 2001, the question of the connections between Islam and democracy, between Islam and terrorism and, more generally, violence has been very much on the agenda. In the booming colonial literature of a century ago, it was another question that was more frequently posed: that of the responsibility of Islam in the backwardness of the Muslim people, especially since it promotes fatalism and is allegedly opposed to freedom of choice and the spirit of initiative. We should ask ourselves whether these questions — or rather accusations — are pertinent, and whether Islam as a religion is effectively at the source of the obvious lack of democracy in many Muslim countries and, particularly, in the Arab world.
To start with, it should be pointed out, as an example, that Latin America has long suffered under dictatorial regimes run by corrupt military juntas and nobody, at least in the West, has thought of holding Christianity, the majority religion of the Latin American people, responsible for these dictatorships. Neither has anyone judged that the Orthodox religion of the Russians — who had allowed Communism to take root in their countries — was to blame for their unrelenting autocratic rule over the peoples of the defunct Soviet Union.
Why then this essentialist view of Islam which, supposedly, is incapable of evolution or change? And why also overlook the fact that the majority of Muslims are living today in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, India and elsewhere under democratic regimes — within the limits permitted by their socioeconomic conditions.
Those who label Islam a violent religion are on the wrong track.
Fueled by Islamist Literature
It is true that a whole body of Islamist literature exists that is financed and encouraged in part by the Islam of petrol which feeds this essentialist view of Islam. It provides it with irrefutable arguments concerning the predilection of a fringe of Muslims for a caliphate regime and political systems that fall far short of the criteria for democracy. However, the general tendency is to take such a view at face value and to regard it as representative of a prevalent Muslim attitude, instead of placing it within its proper context. It is equally true that, throughout history, political power in the countries of Islam did not usually allow for citizen participation in civic affairs. But which power in pre-modern history was democratic in the sense that we understand it today?
This negative perception of Islam is without doubt being fueled by ideological rather than religious motives. It manifestly provides its detractors with a clean conscience to implement their policies of hegemony and exploitation under the guise of the struggle of good against evil, and the propagation of democracy, liberty, and human rights. They overlook the discrepancy posed by such justification with their selfish economic and strategic interests, and with their arrogant and criminal conduct, even according to international law and the basic principles of ethics. Nevertheless, although it is material interests which guide the politics of the big powers, neither the cultural nor the psychological dimensions are to be disregarded. In certain instances, they can be very important, albeit never determining. They serve rather to justify hegemonic and belligerent machinations, and to give a semblance of legitimacy for actions that are devoid of it.
A Degree of Nostalgia
Even if today’s West has ceased to be the Christianity of the Middle Ages and is now largely secularized, its attitude towards the Muslim world remains tinged with the animosity and strife that have marked the shared history of both Muslims and Christians around the Mediterranean since the inception of Islam. The former remember with nostalgia the period when they were masters of Spain, the south of France and Sicily. The latter do not forget that countries which once were the cradle and centers of Christianity —Palestine in the first place, but also Syria, Egypt, Turkey, with towns charged with history and Christian symbols like Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria or Constantinople — have fallen under the rule of Islam. The religion of Christ has forever been banished from these lands, while its followers have dwindled to a minority.
It is not then by chance that the West, traditionally anti-Semitic, has installed Israel in the heart of the Arab world.1 It was one way for the West to rid itself of the Jews; at the same time it was able to throw a western bridgehead in a part of the world it often perceived as basically hostile. And it is not the least paradoxical to see the traditionally anti-Jewish religious extreme right and ultra-conservatives — currently in the ascendance in the U.S.A. — give their unstinting support to the Zionist entity, as they believe this would hasten the Second Coming of Christ. In such a unique situation, not one leader has seen fit to decry the blatant denial of justice of which the Palestinians are victim, or the alleged Israeli democracy which treats the latter as second class citizens and practices a segregationist policy based on religion and race.
Why then does the West give such an importance to the establishment of democracy in Muslim countries? Everybody is familiar with the scores of analyses asserting that democracy is the best defense against the terrorism carried out by certain Islamist groups, operating almost everywhere around the world and striking blindly against innocent victims. These analyses can be accepted without reservation, provided Islam is not associated with such terrorist acts, even if their perpetrators insist on the fact.
In the name of Christian values, some militants of the pro-life movement in the U.S.A. have attacked doctors and clinics that practice abortions. The Irish Catholics have perpetrated several terrorist acts against their Protestant enemies. It does not mean that Christianity which has been abusively invoked in these cases should be held responsible for the reprehensible acts one commits in its name. Similarly, ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers armed to the teeth kill with impunity peaceful citizens of the occupied territories, expel others from their homes, blow up their houses, uproot their millenary trees and destroy their crops under the false pretence of the fight against terrorism and their religious right over the land of Palestine. It would be wrong, however, to see in Judaism a religious or systematic hatred towards non-Jews. The same measure should apply to Islam.
Understanding the Historical Context
One must always seek to understand the historical conditions which lead to the reading of sacred texts in one way rather than in another. It is in the nature of sacred texts to be susceptible to divergent, even contradictory, interpretations, arising from a specific context, from the expectations of the readers, or from the underlying cultural framework. It is not possible then to assert that Islam is for or against democracy, or for the equality of the sexes, freedom of conscience or any other value. The mainstream readings, called orthodox, are in effect nothing but the reflection of the preoccupation of the faithful during a certain period. They may change; the faithful, however, need not recognize the changes. This is completely justified, to the extent that the Prophetic messages are systematically perverted under the influence of socio-historical factors, and because religion, in getting institutionalized, is transformed into a congealed and dogmatic system of beliefs and non-beliefs. The believers are then called upon to cut across successive layers of historical interpretations in order to arrive at the original meaning of the founding texts.
If militant Islamism, which is essentially political and is responsible for a number of contemporary terrorist acts in and outside Muslim countries, claims its action springs from a reading of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Tradition which it considers as the only valid sources, it is because religious teaching in the majority of the traditional religious centers is far behind the modern advances grounded in the scientific achievements of the past two centuries. The Catholic Church had held anti-modernist attitudes until the Vatican II Council. The Muslims do not dispose of a clergy like that of Catholicism. With a historical retard in the religious domain as indeed in other domains, it is normal that we should witness among them all sorts of religiosities, each trying in its way to be faithful to the teachings of Islam. We are, in effect, in the presence of a manipulative process which profits those who have the means to influence public opinions through television satellites and other media that spout all day long a discourse both reactionary and retrograde.
Sunni Islam — which is in the majority — has always held a legitimistic position vis-à-vis the established powers. The Muslim clerics were ready to recognize any regime, even despotic, provided it conceded to them the monopoly of social control through the prerogatives of religious law which they are supposed to apply. Today, this position has become anachronistic by the fact that religious law is essentially universal, whereas the Muslims live in countries where the law is by nature territorial. The modern Muslim nation-states follow then a law where the reference to the shari’a is most tenuous if not totally absent, except in what relates to the personal status which remains in most cases subject to the rules of classical jurisprudence.
Not Unlike Other Religions
In other words, Islam is not free from the manipulation by the religious for social ends. All the traditional and pre-modern societies have experienced the system of laws justified by religion, which was considered the ultimate authority for the legitimization of the established order, including the political. Today, the aspirations of Muslims for democracy and the participation of citizens in the public sphere do not differ from the aspirations of other people, irrespective of creed, language or color. The maintaining of undemocratic regimes, or frankly anti-democratic ones, that claim more or less openly a religious legitimacy, should be explained only by the fact that Muslim societies have not yet generally succeeded in modernizing their production and social systems, or in acquiring institutions that guarantee popular sovereignty. Agriculture, breeding, handicrafts and small businesses are the most widespread means of production. Income from petrol is enough to cater to the needs of the population in certain countries. But almost in all Muslim countries, industrialization is either insufficient or simply inexistent. This shapes, directly and indirectly, the social configurations of the countries, not to mention that it is a necessary condition, albeit not sufficient, for the establishment of a democratic system.
Consequently, dealing with the question of democracy in terms of its compatibility or incompatibility with Islam is not a valid approach. Like all religions, Islam adapts to any political regime. This does not mean that all regimes are comparable in measuring up to its principles, far from it. To the contrary, our reading of the Muhammedian message leads to the assertion that in dispensing with intermediaries between man and the Divine, and ending the dependence of man on supernatural powers, human beings are enabled to fully exercise their freedom and responsibility. And what better system than democracy through which to exercise these two fundamentals? Consequently, any position at variance with this is nothing but a hang-over from the past, doomed sooner or later to disappear or to be marginalized.
Those who seek to label Islam as a violent or despotic religion are on the wrong track. They would better be advised to address the origin of injustices and frustrations experienced by Muslims and to help in the emergence or the consolidation of conditions that are promote the establishment of democracy, instead of pretending to impose it by the force of arms. They should also start by practicing democracy in their own international relations and the functioning of such institutions as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the UN Security Council. And finally, they could show their serious concern for democracy by ending their support, especially by covert means, in the Muslim world and elsewhere, for dictatorial regimes, since these tend to facilitate the exploitation, by foreign powers, of the riches of their own people.
1.“The hunting of Jews has always been a European sport. Now, the Palestinians, who had never practiced it, are paying the price,” Eduardo Galeano, Le Monde diplomatique, August 2005, p. 10.