Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Muslims & Democracy: A Précis

Historically, an Islamic rhetorical idiom has legitimated many a manner of governance: from the despotic to the benign. And the bountiful intellectual fruits of Islamic traditions—philosophical, theological, jurisprudential, mystical—are capable of justifying a wide array of political models and forms of political behavior, including models and forms of democratic provenance. Professors, pundits, policy makers, and the public in their wake, have argued or assumed that Islam and democracy are inherently incompatible, that cultural and political properties intrinsic to Islamic civilization preclude the birth of anything remotely resembling “Islamic democracy.” Yet empirical studies conclude that such culturalist explanations “have little relevance for the emergence and durability of democracies” (Przeworski, et al., in Dahl, Shapiro, Cheibub, eds.).

Today a clarion call from Muslims around the world is heard on behalf of the virtues of democratic values and principles, methods and processes. The overwhelming preference of the “Arab street” and the majority of non-Arabic Muslims is for ballots (‘paper stones’) not bullets, as militant, jihadist Muslims prove the exception to the rule. In short, Islamic democracy is not an oxymoron.

Minimalist or thin theories of democracy focus on the electoral components of the democratic process, the desiderata being free and fair, multiparty elections by secret and universal ballot. An electoral democracy is a constitutional order in which the (chief) executive and legislative offices are filled through regular and competitive elections. In Przeworski’s words, “In the end, the miracle of democracy is that conflicting political forces obey the results of voting.” By these standards, for example, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia are democratic, as are several states of the former Soviet Union; Egypt and Malaysia are quasi- or semi-democratic; Jordan and Morocco democratic by fits and starts; Algeria has democratic pretensions, as does Kuwait and Bahrain; interestingly, Iran also scores high on this electoral scorecard. Even Saudi Arabia is unable to resist the reformist clamor for electoral democracy: the Kingdom’s cabinet has announced that it will hold its first elections for municipal councils. As various fora of dialogue or “talking shops” are essential forms of democratic participation, the fact that the Saudi leaders are talking about reform with “reform groups” perhaps portends changes on the desert horizon, however distant.

Problems persist: executive offices are often uncontested; opposition parties face unwarranted if not unreasonable government restrictions (and not a few parties are ‘banned’ for this or that reason), with often limited access to media. In addition to voting fraud, authoritarian elites do not hesitate to resort to insidious forms of “electoral engineering” to achieve favorable electoral outcomes. In this case, the maxim “something is better than nothing” holds. Perchance international election monitoring can play a more effective part in preventing or discouraging attempts at electoral manipulation.

As a consequence of electoral participation, some of the more militant Salafi Islamists have formed alliances and coalitions with both Islamic and “secularist” parties and movements, often renouncing the methods of violence in ending the campaign for an “Islamic revolution.” Denying Islamists participation in electoral politics can have deleterious results: as in Algeria, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) resorted to rebellion and violence; other times it simply compels Islamist to engage in the politics of civil society, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Islamist parties demonstrating a commitment to democratic principles and procedures—i.e., to play by the “rules of the game”—are found, for example, in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as well in most of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, both Hamas and Hezbollah have evidenced a substantial preference for and appreciation of the value of democratic political participation

The growth and consolidation of democracy in the Islamic world faces enormous obstacles: authoritarian political traditions and communalist orientations (including recalcitrant ‘ulamā’ with medievalist responses to the conditions of modernity); histories of colonialist rule and imperialist interference; the need to implement economic reforms by way of integration into the global economy; by-products of nationalist struggles that lacked democratic priorities; economically bloated and inefficient States with excessive military expenditures; to list the more egregious difficulties. Fortunately, the level of economic development provides little information about the chances of transition to democracy, although per capita income does correlate with the sustainability of democratic regimes. And political economists and democratic theorists alike well know that rentier states pose peculiar problems for democratic development. Of course “thick,” more substantive participatory and deliberative democratic theories elaborate a motley of social and institutional conditions that serve as prerequisites of, or that are at least conducive to, full-fledged democratic consolidation and flourishing. When or if the variegated potential forms of Islamic democracy do develop, the corresponding criteria of assessment will be more stringent, and the eudaimonistic consequences more satisfying, than the “thin” electoral variety.
One of the foremost students of civil society, John Keane, suggested in his book, Reflections on Violence (1996), “that Islam, the most socially conscious of world religions, can partly overcome the transition-to-democracy dilemma by concentrating the considerable sum of its energies on the nooks and crannies of civil society.” Both prescriptive and prescient, the prescriptive part was belied by the fact that, descriptively, Muslims from many walks of life had, for some time already, been actively engaged in the arena of civil society, carving out a social space for a “politics of identity” that strove to be at once moral/religious, nonviolent, egalitarian, welfarist, justice-seeking, and democratic. Keane’s remark remains prescient insofar as few observers outside the Islamic world had yet to acknowledge the presence of a vigorous civil society in many of the Muslim majority countries.
Civil society is located between the intimate/private spheres of familial life, and the various organs of the State: administrative, legislative, judicial, economic, etc. In large measure, it is beholden to those selfsame institutions, for the State serves to “frame” or structure social relations outside its immediate purview (e.g., the legal system). The nature, complexity and differentiation of power relations, nodes and networks account for the interdependence and feedback loops between the State and civil society. The institutions, associations, organizations, gathering places, and social movements on the terrain of civil society act as a Deweyan schoolhouse for democracy, or as a dress rehearsal for more traditional forms of political participation. While authoritarian regimes routinely attempt to “de-politicize” or “privatize” (‘atomize’) relations within society, the modern Leviathan finds it difficult to implement this divide-to-conquer strategy, that is, to be truly totalitarian, to manipulate and control the entire spectrum of activities and dialogue constitutive of the various “publics” in civil society.
The moral, political and cultural capacities of actors in civil society are based on norms of trust, reciprocity, friendship, commitment, and the like that are metaphorically termed “social capital.” The strength and circulation of this social capital signals both the desire and potential for democratization (i.e., as a variable in the transition from non-democratic to democratic rule) and may be the very locus of “democracy” in societies with governments that suffer from democracy deficits.
Delineating the lineaments of civil society involves (1) reconfiguring the boundaries of the political, e.g.: the samizdat, the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), the “Flying University” (TKN) in the former Soviet Union and East-Central Europe; CORE, the Highlander Folk School, Citizenship Schools, and SNCC of the civil rights era; the Free Speech movement, SDS, and countercultural communes, cooperatives, and clinics of the 1960s; the Beijing Spring of 1989; the United Democratic Front of South Africa; and the comunidades de base of Liberation Theology in Latin America—it entails (2)reconceptualizing the nature of power, e.g.: the intellectuals of the Velvet Revolutions (Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, et al.); Gandhian political theory; post-Gramscian Marxism (Carl Boggs); Michel Foucault; the late Fundi Green theorist Rudolf Bahro; and Johan Galutung—and, finally, it includes (3) an appreciation of the financial systems, capital flows, markets, and property rights essential for the material resources that sustain (as both cause and product) civil society (cf.: Henry and Springborg’s Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East, 2001).
In the Middle East (keeping in mind that the vast majority of Muslims reside outside this region), civil society consists of “a mélange of associations, clubs, guilds, syndicates, federations, unions, parties and groups [that] come together to provide a buffer between state and citizen.” (Augustus R. Norton) Professional syndicates (niqabat) are particularly strong in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, and among the Palestinians. These associations (of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc.) are often the leading edge of civil society owing to the high level of education, political awareness, and financial resources of their members. In Egypt, Muslim Brothers are elected majorities on the boards of most of these associations.
Among the Arab Gulf States, Kuwait’s civil society deserves mention, with its fairly free press, professional associations and cultural clubs. In particular, the diwaniyyah function as a gathering place in citizens’ homes where men socialize while discussing a variety of topics, political and otherwise. Some women have started their own diwaniyyah, and it was the diwaniyyah that gave birth to the country’s pro-democracy movement. While Kuwait’s constitution provides the framework for its civil society, the State has never recognized independent voluntary organizations. Turkey, with its Kemalist/laicist state, has a yet more energetic civil society, much of it Islamic. Still, its Islamist members “possess contradictory motivations and goals and sometimes radically different interpretations of fundamental religious principles and political platforms” (Jenny B. White). When the Kemalist regime crushed the Left in the early 1980s, Muslim activists filled the void: charitable, welfarist, and educational projects persist against a backdrop of agitation for economic and social justice. The electoral success of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (‘AK’) provides evidence of the mobilizational and organizational skills of Muslims in civil society, apart from continuity with the legacy of the Welfare and Virtue Parties.
Finally, note should be made of the attraction of militant Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. These groups draw young recruits and galvanize popular support for several reasons, not the least of which is their “provision of substantial social services and charitable activities, from education to housing and financial support of the members of families killed, wounded, or detained by authorities" (John L. Esposito).

Further Reading:
Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Robert A. Dahl, Ian Shapiro and José Antonio Chiebub, eds., The Democracy Sourcebook (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); Khaled Abou El Fadl, "Islam and the Challenge of Democracy," Boston Review (April/May 2003); John L. Esposito and Franςois Burgat, eds., Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003); John L. Esposito and John O.Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Noah Feldman, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003); John Keane, Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998); Augustus Richard Norton, ed., Civil Society in the Middle East, 2 Vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995-96); James Piscatori, “Islam, Islamists, and the Electoral Principle in the Middle East” (Leiden, The Netherlands: International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World [ISIM], 2000); Jenny B. White, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2002); and Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Mobilizing Islam: Religious Activism and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
A slightly different version of the above appeared in Juan E. Campo, ed., Encyclopedia of Islam. New York: Checkmark Books, 2009.


Anonymous Jock Bowden said...


You make the very common mistake that just because Christian societies developed democracies, there is no reason why the Muslims can't.

Well, there is.

Both democracy and the Christian New Testament are Greek/Koine documents that operate within similar ethical, rational, and political spaces.

Islam's rigidity - it being written in only one language (God only spoke Arabic) - the foreigness of the notion of rendering unto Ceasar and God their respective and separate dues, cannot coexist successfully with democracy. And why should they want to? After all they have the infallible Koran.

Also, The Koran is such a textbook of violent colonisation and imperialism, that both the civil, military, and religious leaderships are ever ready for another war. For christ sake, they still insist they have a right to Spain!

The other major slow-burning issue is that not only is The Koran and especially Sunni Islam an imperialist project, it is one which overwhelmingly privileges Arabs.

7/05/2009 5:02 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


Democracy is not merely enshrined in "Greek documents" nor is Christianity or the New Testament properly understood (as any Biblical scholar might inform you) without knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic and thus for this and other reasons the gross and vague generalization that "democracy" and the "New Testament" "operate within similar ethical, rational and political spaces" is virtually unintelligible. In any case, the fact that Christians have been fascists, monarchists and anti-democratic (among other things) throughout history and non-Christians of religious or non-religious persuasions ardent democrats clearly demonstrates that Christian allegiance is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for democracy. Far better, in any case, to think of Muslim societies of the Middle East and North Africa and the Christian societies of Western Europe and America as belonging to the same civilization (hence the sound if not persuasive argument of Richard W. Bulliet).

Viewed as either a civilization or a religion, Islam has has been articulated in a number of languages outside of Arabic, and your failure to know or appreciate this fact belies the confidence with which you've uttered your crassly tendentious and bizarre comments (at least your consistent, having previously done this at both Crooked Timber and Opinio Juris). What is more, not a few Muslim jurists refused to let Islamic jurisprudence become the handmaiden of nominally Islamic rulers at various places and times in Islamic history and Muslims are as capable as Christians at separating or distinguishing religion and politics. Recall, on the other hand, the fusion of Christianity with the State under Constantine and Tolstoy's devastating critique of Christianity's repeated historic and spiritual failure to refuse (either doctrinally or 'on the ground') the temptations of worldly power.

I'm afraid your statement that "the Koran is such a textbook of violent colonisation and imperialism" bespeaks an appalling ignorance of basic Qur'anic exegesis and hermeneutics (including the basic forms of interpretation based on reason and traditions: ta'wil and tafsir respectively) or what is evocatively if not appropriately termed the Qur'anic sciences.

With some justification, it might be said that Muslims saved Western civilization inasmuch as they preserved Greek philosophical and other cultural traditions that Christians earlier attempted to dismiss and destroy owing to their fear and distrust of all-things-pagan. Indeed, we should speak of the "similar ethical, rational and political spaces" shared by Greek philosophy, Islamic philosophy and theology, and Christian theology, as evidenced, for example, in some of the best work of Aquinas and natural theology in general.

It should go without saying but Muslims do not speak with one voice and so it is patently absurd to pronounce on these subjects in the third person plural.

That the Qur'an is in Arabic is no more an index for "rigidity" than the Vedas being written in Sanskrit or the Analects being of Chinese provenenace.

As one of my former teachers reminded us:

"Democracy is neither a parochial parlor game nor a peculiar national sport, despite the claims of some democrats. Liberty is neither an exotic plant suited only to special soils nor a disembodied spirit that deigns to take possession of chosen peoples, despite the pretensions of some libertarians. Both democracy and liberty are universifiable, although different traditions and new needs present formidable challenges to our conventional conceptions and demand high costs of commitment."

Either good sense or prudence might prompt one from making bold assertions, pronouncements or claims about topics clealy and painfully beyond one's purview.

7/05/2009 9:08 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

erratum" "at least you're consistent"...

7/05/2009 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Jock Bowden said...

Democracy is not merely enshrined in "Greek documents"

No, it is not, which is why I did not say it was. However, Athens was the first to prefer rule by the many than the few; and had the civil will and propinquity to other massive socio-cultural changes, such as the birth of the performance of tragic poetry on a stage.

The word demos is Greek; not Arabic or Persian.

The world’s first democracy emerged in the 50 years between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. (490 BC to 440 BC). Many generally consider Greece’s victory in the Battle of Salamis to be the defining moment in western history.

Of course, the imperially-aggressive Persian’s had been trying to add the Hellenic poleis to their huge empire from 550 BC, and did not stop until Alexander the Great finally bitchslapped their girly asses over 200 years later. The Persians managed to get Egypt, Lydia, Ionia, Afghanistan, Thrace, Arabia, Central Asia, Syria……

There is no question that the Tragedy Competitions and festivals were sites for the projection of Athenian civic values, however, the City Dionysia was created to celebrate peculiarly democratic civic values: the five day festival, centred on the plays performed in the Theatre Dionysia, was a celebration of polis-life, per se.

Part of the revelry involved a negotiation of how broader claims to justice in dynamic socio-cultural and geopolitical circumstances. In particular, the plays are explicable only within the religious context they were staged: they had ‘everything to do with Dionysus.’

Democracy was born religious! And not in the Orient or Arabia!

I'll respond to the other half of your post later.



7/07/2009 2:39 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


First, the meaning of what you said was readily implied by what you literally put down, namey, linking democracy and the New Testament to the Greek language in a strange and untenably determinist fashion, much as you proceeded to link Arabic and Islam in an equally untenable manner. So, it's too late now to change the meaning of what was written earlier and indeed your follow-up remark (e.g., 'The word demos is Greek; not Arabic or Persian') only serves to confirm precisely what I wrote in reply to the original implausible comment.

Thanks for giving us an exquisite example of the genetic fallacy, in this case probably best termed the etymological/conceptual fallacy. As Amartya Sen has well argued, democracy was never the exclusive birthright of the Greeks and we see forms of democratic decision making before and apart from the Greeks.

Not incidentally, we do have blogging standards at this blog so you're warned now that phrases like "bitchslapped their girly asses over 200 years later" are far below those standards.

7/07/2009 8:25 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


One more thing: I'll be posting my bibliography for "democratic theory and praxis" at this blog within the next several months so you might want to take some time to read not a few works therein that you're clearly not familiar with. You can find earlier and edited (for reasons of length) drafts of two sections of the list here:

‘Democratic Praxis (Outside North America): A Basic Bibliography,’ The Good Society, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2005): 83-90, and here:

‘Democratic Theory: A Basic Bibliography,’ The Good Society, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2006): 61-71.

One recipient of this compilation, Dr. John Schwarzmantel (http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/about/staff/schwarzmantel/) wrote: "Thank you so much for this latest version of your bibliography on democratic theory and praxis- it's really incredibly useful.... [A]nd congratulations on producing such a very helpful and comprehensive guide to the literature in this area."

7/07/2009 8:40 AM  

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