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A Comparison between Islam and Liberalism



Seyed Sadegh Haghighat[1]

(Due to Change and Revision)

What is/are the Muslim conception/conceptions of democracy, especially in the European countries? What are the similarities and differences between Islamic and Western democracy? Which parameters influence the Muslim conception of democracy, especially Muslims in the West? While the year 2001, following Iran's suggestion to the UN, was named “The Dialogue of Civilizations Year", why do we face the phenomena of the "Clash of Civilizations" in practice!? While Islam was not considered as the "enemy" of the West before a couple of decades ago, why has every thing changed from the end of the Cold War up to now? What is the impact of this phenomenon on the democtarization process in the Islamic countries?

To provide answers to such questions, I'll try:

- to clarify the compatibility of Islam and democracy first,

- to elaborate the similarities and differences between Islamic democracy and liberal democracy secondly,

- to explain the impact of international currents on the democratic process in Islamic countries thirdly and

- to make the democratic Islam condition in Europe more clear, finally.

More than 18 million Muslims live in Europe, facing a couple of problems such as identity crisis, visa process and some unsuitable behaviors. This article will concentrate on the Muslim concept(s) of democracy in this regard. 



Compatibility of Islam and Democracy

Here, there are two separate questions:

- Can democracy be attributed by "religious" and "non-religious" or "Islamic" and "non-Islamic" (to have "Islamic Democracy")?

- Is Islam compatible with democracy?

My answers to those questions are positive, though, just the second question will be argued in this article. But, two other questions may arise: which Islam? And whose Islam? And who has the authority to interpret Islam? The clergies, the intellectuals or everybody?

David Held recognizes nine models for democracy including the liberal one,[2] though, Larry Diamond ascribes seven features to any democracy: individual freedoms and civil liberties; rule of the law; sovereignty resting upon the people; equality of all citizens before the law; vertical and horizontal accountability for government officials; transparency of the ruling systems to the demands of the citizens; and equality of opportunity for citizens.[3] I will argue that although these features can clarify the term of democracy better, but it has no essence. There is no rigid and unchangeable foundation for democracy. Some radical views, including extremist modernists and fundamental Islamists believe that “democracy” is a foreign secular concept which is denies by sovereignty of God. However, The Muslim world is not ideologically monolithic, and it presents a broad spectrum of perspectives of democracy.[4]

This article will concentrate on the democratic readings of Shiism. Although some fundamentalist readings of Islam and Shiism are considered as anti-modern and anti-democratic ideologies, I believe that Islam has the ingredients of modern state and democracy. In fact, there are a lot of doctrines which seek to prove that Islam enshrines modern and democratic values, though, not all readings of Sunni and Shia Islam are democratic. For example, M. Ismaeilian, in among the intellectuals who argue that Islam is vs. democracy.[5] Secularist intellectuals along with conservative clergies (ulama) believe in contradiction between Islam and democracy; but reformist clergies and religious intellectuals believe in congruency between the two concepts.

Islamic democracy differs from liberal democracy, and may vary from country to country and also over time. The experience of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Iran are not alike. Putting absolute relativism aside, it seems evident, however, that the concept of democracy comprises notions such as rule of law, freedom and human rights.

Speaking of "Islamic democracy", two kinds of democratic states can be recognized in the Islamic countries:

1) A democratic state which recognizes Islam as state religion, such as Malaysia, and Algeria. In these kinds of governments, some religious values are incorporated into public life, but Islam is not the only source of law.

2) A democratic state which endeavors to institute Sharia.[6] This kind of government is considered as a model of political Islam, and not as a fundamentalist one.

In general, there are two visions about the relationship between Islam and democracy: compatibility and incompatibility. Fundamentalists and radical modernists are two oppose groups which believe in the conflict between these two concepts. Some modernization theories suggest a negative assessment of the notion of “Democratic Islam”. Supposing the Western modernity as the only way to modernization, they generally propose a kind of contradiction between Islam (or every religion) and democracy. Considering religion as a private matter, they believe it might be a barrier for democracy if it interfere social and political spheres. Daniel Lerner, for example, holds that, to move toward democracy, religion must be marginalized. Ernest Gellner suggests that Islam enjoys “ideological monopoly” which rejects modern civil society.[7] These theorists recognize an essence for democratization and Westernization first, and they consider it as anti-religious secondly.

But some Western researchers support the Islamist claim that democracy parameters are not only compatible with Sharia, but that Islam actually encourages democratic notions such as parliamentary elections and freedom of speech. One of the most prominent researchers is John L. Esposito who believes in the congruency between Islam and democracy. In his more than thirty books about Islamist movements, he tries to prove that Islam enjoys enough potentialities to be compatible with modern life and democracy. He argues that "every culture will form its own model of democratic government".[8] He believes in the possibility of religious democracy.[9] According to him, "Islamic movements have internalized the democratic discourse through the concepts of shura [consultation], ijma' [consensus], and ijtihad [independent interpretive judgment]".[10] Based on Edward Said’s Orientalism, he believes that there are two main barriers to have suitable empathy with Islamists: "secular bias" toward Islam,[11] and lack of experience with Islamic movements.[12]

Ignoring the basic foundations of democracy, Esposito draws inspiration from some scholars such as Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and Mohammad Khatami (1943-), since they argue that Islam provides a framework for combining democracy with Islam.[13] Esposito and Voll argue that Mawdudi accepts democracy as frame under the concept of God's unity. His theo-democracy opposes dictatorship.[14]

Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, believes in the compatibility of Islam and democracy too. Shura is admitted by Sharia as a major pillar in Islam. There are two verses in the holy Quran. According to the first, the righteous are described as those people who manage their affairs through “mutual consultation” or shura.[15] The second verse orders the Prophet Mohammad to consult with others.[16] Baqir al-Sadr holds that Muslims have a general right to dispose of their affairs on the basis of the principle of consultation. It is important that the constitutional system of the Islamic Republic of Iran was influenced by al-Sadr’s thought. But according to Fahmy Howeidy, "We shouldn’t get into such comparison between Shura and democracy. Arab and Muslim thinkers differ on the concept of Shura whereas they agree on democracy".[17] He observes Shura as an advisory council, not as a participatory one.

Gudrun Kramer also shares the above thesis. According to her, the central stream in Islam "has come to accept crucial elements of political democracy: pluralism, political participation, governmental accountability, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights."[18] Forough Jahanbakhsh[19] and Shireen Hunter[20] refer to the modern trends which provide a good insight for the subject. Vali Nasr argues that Shiites have become "both an objective and a subjective democratic force" - that they have embraced democracy.[21] Asef Bayat sees a lot of democratic notions in Islam. Referring to the intellectual debates in Iran, he says “the compatibility or incompatibility of a religion, including Islam, with democracy is not a matter of merely philosophical speculations, but of political struggle. Whereas Islamism, as he puts it, is defined by the fusion of religion and responsibility, post-Islamism emphasizes religiosity and rights. It represents an endeavor to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. It wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom, with democracy and modernity, to achieve what some have called an “alternative modernity”.[22] In other words, theoretically speaking, democratic and non-democratic notions might be found in Islam, but social and political contexts determine whether the first or the second will be hegemonic. Democratic Islam is a general term comprises all Islamic movements which try to find a middle way between Islam and modern democracy.

Bassam Tibi holds that Islam and democracy can be reconciled, but fundamentalist-democratic regime is a contradiction in terms.[23] He emphasizes that political Islam, the reading of Islam which appropriates Islamic law – the Shariah – as the central principle, is not identical with Islam per se. He says: "As a liberal Muslim, I rather believe in a cultural and political pluralism that precludes the dominance of whatever civilization."[24] After publishing Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change,[25] he demonstrated how political Islam, by politicization of Islam, confronted modernity.[26] Based on cultural relativism, epistemologically speaking, he rejects not only contemporary manifestations of Islam but also contemporary manifestations of modernity.

Tibi is right when he reconciles between democracy and cultural Islam, and when he sees democracy incompatible with fundamentalist Islam. But the point is that political Islam has different readings, and each of them is congruent with democracy to some degree. Therefore, the distinction between political Islam and Islam as a faith and culture[27] is not enough. Statistics show that about 70% of Muslims believe that Sharia must be the only source, or a source, of legislation.[28]

 Generally speaking, it is evident that, in the Muslim context, which democracy could find in a different range, Sharia is considered at least as one of the sources of legislation.


Similarities between Islamic and liberal Democracy

Before, I referred to seven features of democracy, though, not as its essence. The concept of democracy includes free elections, rule of law, the right to education, respect for human rights, such as human dignity, freedom of expression, association and religion. Democracy as a concept is derived from philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece, and was developed by philosophers such as John Locke in the eighteenth century. Democracy is a general term which has changed during time. Therefore, it should not be restricted in the liberal democracy model. Esposito and Voll criticize Western attempts to monopolize the definition of democracy and suggest the very concept shifts meanings over time and place. They argue that every culture can mold an independent model of democratic government, which may or may not correlate to the Western liberal idea.[29]

In addition to the verses of the holy Quran, as I have developed in my book Distribution of Power in Shia Political Thought, independent reason admits the mentioned features of democracy.[30]



Differences between Islamic and liberal Democracy

Islamic democracy is a kind of democracy which is confined by obligatory rules of Sharia, whether Sunni or Shia.[31] According to Abu al-A'la al-Mawdudi, "theo-democracy" has three principles: tawhid (unity of God), risala (prophethood) and khilafa (caliphate).[32] The term “theo-democracy” includes some democratic principles, though, the sovereignty of God, according to him, contradicts sovereignty of the people. Therefore, an Islamic democracy would be the exact opposite of secular Western democracy.[33] This is what exactly Imam Khomeini meant by the congruency of Islam and democracy. He believes that Islam has its own democracy.[34] Ontologically speaking, while liberal democracy relies on humanism, Islamic democracy depends on theocracy. The consequence is that legislation in a liberal democracy, based on secularism, is free from religion, while Islamic democracy recognizes Sharia at least as one of the sources of legislation.[35] While social and political liberty has no connection with religion in the Western secularism, all kinds of Islamic concept of liberty are confined by Islamic decrees. Imam Khomeini sees Western liberty as an abolishing phenomenon for morality.[36] Islamic human rights, according to him, are derived from Sharia, though, liberal human rights have no religious roots.   



Islam, Democracy and International Relations

One of the elements of Muslim conception of democracy is what is happening between Islamic civilization and other civilizations. Samuel Huntington suggested that, with the end of the Cold War, a new confrontation may be emerging between Western liberal democracy and a coalition between Islamic civilization and Confucianism. However, a couple of recent works disagree with his thesis. For example, Esposito stresses the diversity within the Islamic world.[37] In addition to the fact that there is no "Islamic civilization" as a whole, the basis of conflict might lie in economic issues, not in cultural and civilizational ones. Graham Fuller suggests that tensions are more likely to emerge within predominantly Islamic societies, and between the First World and the Third World in regard to issues of trade and economic development.[38] According to Fred Halliday, Westerners who refer to an "Islamic threat" and proponents of radical Islamism both frequently mischaracterize Islamism as the only reliable expression of Islam.[39] These three thinkers suggest that tensions between the West and the Islamic countries are not inevitable, and could be manageable if approached properly.

Shireen T. Hunter challenges Huntington's theory that civilizational clash between Islam and the West is inevitable because of an alleged belief of Islam that no distinction exists between the religious and political spheres. She suggests that in practice the relation between these spheres has been more confusing. From the point of view of predominantly Islamic countries, argues Hunter, conflicts between these countries and the West has been at least as much an outcome in recent years of imbalances in strategic and economic clout relative to Western states as of some sort of inevitable civilizational incompatibility between the Islamic world and the West. As she points out, such a conclusion has special implications for policy on the part of the West.[40]



Democratic Islam in Europe

Having elaborated on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and having explored the similarities and differences between liberal and Islamic democracy, now I deal with the condition of democratic Islam in Europe (and the U.S.). In this regard, there are many pessimistic and optimistic analyses. The investigations of the first group are rooted in the left and the postmodern schools of thought. Edward Said's Orientalism adopts a critical approach to the Western studies.[41] His critique is directed at the Western tradition characterized by the use of such Eurocentric terms as "Eastern" and "Oriental" that emphasize the otherness from the so-called "West". Said has criticized Bernard Lewis[42], who has authored numerous works on the Middle East as an Orientalist.

Bassam Tibi, on the other hand, advocates the cultural Islam vs. political Islam. He means by "the hybrid Islam" a European Islam that accepts the constitutive principles of European democracy, a thin shell of Islam with European values at its core.[43] He argues that: "The adherents of Islamic fundamentalism not only reject the existing world order, because it is based on Western norms and rules, they basically claim to replace it by an Islamic order based on Islamic rules".[44] According to him, the spread of modern technology, communication and transportation networks has led to a shrinking of the globe, though, it is simultaneously more unified and more fragmented humanity.[45] Tariq Ramadan has advocated the idea of Euro-Islam too. His suggestion is considered as an alternative for Islamization of Europe plan. As Rashid Ghanoushi says: “If by democracy is meant the liberal model of government prevailing in the West, a system under which the people freely choose their representatives and leaders, in which there is an alternation of power, as well as all freedoms and human rights for the public, then Muslims will find nothing in their religion to oppose democracy, and it is not in their interests to do so.”[46]




There is no inherent mismatch between Islam and democracy. Since democracy is not a rigid term, it may change during time and in different places. Every country may have degrees of democracy parameters. Democratic countries do not necessarily follow one special formula. Therefore, there may be a democracy with the inclusion of religious norms in the government.

The pessimistic view highlights some concepts like jihad in fundamentalist Islam. I have argued that offensive jihad is not the case of the modern international relations, and secular countries are not the target of jihad in the modern era.[47] Since Huntington suggests that "clash" between the forces of Islam and the West is inevitable, such a thesis lacks theoretical methodology and entails real problems in reality. There must be some space between suggesting, on the one hand, that considerations of political culture are transparent fraud designed as disguise for the naked pursuit of power, and implying, on the other hand, that political cultures are so different that no common ground exists to permit dialogue.

To promote the optimistic view, theoretically speaking, the role of Shura, Islamic pluralism, and the advantages of post-secularism and multiculturalism should be highlighted. It would be misleading to equate Islamic revivalism with support for terrorism. Esposito suppose that political Islam is sometimes a program for religious democracy and not primarily an agenda for holy war or terrorism.[48] Asef Bayat differentiates between Islamism and post-Islamism.[49] Unlike Olivier Roy, I do not believe in "the failure of political Islam", since it is changing during time especially in regard to the current events in the Islamic countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Recent developments in those countries in 2011 has demonstrated that the case is democracy, and nor secularism necessarily.

In practice, Europeans should know more about Islam and Islamic movements. Hermeneutical perspective, empathy and mutual understanding are needed in this regard. Liberal democracy is neither the unique (or the best) kind of democracy nor "the end of history", therefore we need more Intercivilaztional dialogue and conversation between scholars. The West has two choices to face Islam and Muslims: to pursue a fundamentalist static legal-formalistic Islam or to fashion a more dynamic one. If the Western countries want to get along with a democratic Islam, as Esposito suggests, they should avoid applying the dual standards in dealing with dictator regimes in the Middle East and in other Muslim countries. The U.S., not all European countries, may need the fundamentalist Islam as "the other". Islamophobia is more a political and psychological phenomenon than a factual reality.