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Islam and Democracy
courtesy: Radwan Masmoudi, 

Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID)

What is Democracy?
Islamists generally believed that even though democracy was desirable, in fact, necessary, it could not be accepted or incorporated in Muslim societies entirely as instituted and practiced in the West.  They believed that Western democracy was deficient in areas of special interest to Muslims, such as social behavior and economic justice.  Besides, they generally felt the West has not shown itself to be sufficiently democratic
in relation to the rights of the non-Western world. Islam to them is essentially democratic, although Muslims have historically failed to practice democracy.  Challenged now by the West, Muslims can revive shura, and fashion their version of democratic (shura) governance guided largely by indigenous Islamic values.

Non-Islamists emphasized the importance of democracy in contemporary societies.  Only through democratic governance could political stability, economic progress, and social equity be achieved and sustained.  The Western  democratic practices are meritorious and well proven for their beneficial results, particularly in maintaining rule of law, protecting civil rights
and civil liberties, and providing representative yet stable government. Western democracy as such was worthy of consideration and emulation.

Universal Values?
The Islamists were not radical or militant.  They were open to different outlooks and arguments.  Every now and then, they would listen attentively and even concede on an issue at hand. For example, in Casablanca, when a non-Islamist suggested the need to synchronize Islamic values with universal
values, an Islamist countered that the term "universal values" was being used as a ploy for "Western" values.  However, in later conversations he concurred that the "universal" transcended any given religion or culture, and ought to be the final arbiter of all ideas, Eastern and Western, religious and secular.

Non-Islamists were not diehard secularists.  They were not entirely opposed to Islam playing an enlightening role in the promotion of democracy in Muslim societies. They were modernists, convinced that democracy was essential to political harmony and socioeconomic development.  There were ultra-modernists who verged on the secular but would not explicitly cross over to formal secularism.  It was interesting to hear some of them quote the Qur'an to make their case.  For example, in Sana'a, one prominent non-Islamist leader quoted five Qura'nic verses to affirm religious freedom as a basic human right.

This leader then pointed to two specific inconsistencies in the Islamists position. While advocating reopening the gate of Ijtihad (innovative jurisprudence), the Islamists then slam it shut by insisting there could be no Ijtihad where an explicit text exists. The text, rather than any jurisprudential interpretation, would then be the controlling authority.
And while advocating diversity and freedom, some Islamists would punish by death any Muslim who opts out of Islam, even though no such penalty is postulated in the Qur'an.

He bitterly criticized the state of democracy among Arabs and Muslims.  It was a state of stagnation in which the rulers and the opposition remained perpetually in place.
Democracy had become a shell without substance, responsive to outside demands and dismissive of internal needs.  A crisis pervades the entire Arab and Muslim world, begging for frank discussion and practical solutions. Islamists and modernists must come together in addressing this crisis and dealing with its challenges

A path to the future:
The Islamists generally argued that Islam could offer sound and effective direction to national life.  Constitutionalism and representative governance were well rooted within the Islamic sociopolitical perspective, having for their basis not only Islam's ethical imperatives of justice, equality, and
the dignity of man, but also well-established legal precepts embedded within the Sharia proper.

All issues -according to the Islamists -- of social, economic, and political significance must first be reconciled with Islamic teachings. Islamic stipulations in turn need to be made more compatible with Islamic ethics. The core principles of justice, equality, shura and human dignity must govern all decisions. To emphasize this point, the Prophet was twice quoted characterizing his mission as one of completing the moral code.

Within those parameters there was no holding back.  For example, in Sanaa, a leading Islamist asserted there was no way out of the existing backward and confused state of affairs but through reforming the political process, reining in despotic tendencies, upholding freedom as an indivisible value, and adopting democracy as an institutionalized expression of freedom, "above whose voice no voice should be allowed to rise" Making democracy part of the national environment would raise people's consciousness of the merits of the democratic process and make reform less costly and difficult.  All claims by either secularists or Islamists that Islam and democracy are
incompatible are baseless. "We neither add anything to Islam nor subtract something from democracy when we marry the two.  We are not interested incompatibility per se.  What we really want is to make democracy an integral part of the Islamic way of life."

There were common principles between Islam and democracy, such as respect for individual rights, liberty, equality, rejection of absolute power, limiting the role of the state, and supremacy of the law.  Even if these principles have found better and more modern applications in the West, Muslims may - and should- adopt them to their benefit.  As a matter of doctrine, there is nothing in Islam that prevents Muslims from borrowing a useful idea, theory, or practical solution from non-Muslims.

Another Islamist called for an Islamic revival that would make democracy a national imperative.  The Islamic version of democracy, however, would avoid the pitfalls of liberal democracy, namely, excessive individual liberty and the lack of social justice. The fact that democracy is more widely identified with secularism should not be of concern to the Islamists. Islam too can find its purposes fulfilled through democratic governance.

Participants were genuinely interested in improving their national political process through collective effort, institutional advocacy, and public discourse.  A consensus emerged that democratization was the only fair and viable way to end longstanding political disputed, economic hardships, and
intellectual and social malaise.  In short, democracy would induce a qualitative change in the modalities of national politics, thereby giving a sound and effective direction to the national enterprise.

Consensus and common objectives:
While differences between the Islamists and the non-Islamists were vigorously argued back and forth, they did not effectively mar the consensus.  In fact, as the debate progressed, the rhetoric seemed to cool noticeably, giving rise to a more mature and disciplined exchange.

Participants had high hopes of democratic evolution.The economic
conditions are bad enough now; they would get much worse without
democratization.  Accountability to the people through regular elections would discipline politicians and keep the government focused on national interest.  As such, democracy is desired not only for its moral and ethical value, but also as a practical tool to clean out corruption, provide sound governance, and improve economic conditions.

Though ostensibly sensitive to foreign interference, our hosts at the three cities seemed to welcome earnest outside help. They appreciated our interest, as American Muslims, in their political discourse, and were more than willing to listen to what we had to say.

Clearly, there is a great thirst for democracy in the Arab world.  Both Islamists and non-Islamists desire democratic governance. Their differences are not entirely unbridgeable. Their discourse is not altogether unproductive.  But they lack experience in the democratic process.  Their deliberations, though promising, need greater focus and consistency. Sympathetic American organizations can help and guide.  We are hopeful that the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy will remain engaged.  The participants in the three cities developed recommendations and specific programs to help develop democracy in their countries and the region.  CSID will include these recommendations in an extensive report we plan to publish
in the near future.

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