Part 2: Islam, Democracy and Pluralism: Modernity in an Age of Arab Power Politics

What is the potential for democracy in the Arab-Muslim World? This is the preeminent question that will dominate the Middle East for decades to come. The current civil wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen will shape new political borders of the Middle East. These countries mark the frontiers for the development of new ethnic and religious political units that will take shape once the violence reduces to a milder form. What type of governance models will unfold once local actors begin rebuilding sovereign political borderlines? Is democracy a luxury of the West and can it be developed to suit the intricacies of the Middle East? Can Islam bring political order to a fractured region?

The creation of democracy was a substantial quest for the Western World. Considered the best system of political and social organization for the representation of people, liberal order, and humanitarian values, it is important to understand that the history of the development of democracy is rich in complexity. Ideas can be nourished over time with the distinct historical, cultural, and social customs of tribes, collectives, and nations of peoples.

The conclave of modernity, which is estimated to have hit the Arab world with the European colonial conquests of the 1800s, has effected the development of workable political systems throughout the Middle East. Although a substantial contributing factor to the dismal state of affairs in the Middle East, colonialism is not the only reason for the current upheaval in the Muslim World.

Is Islam too Dogmatic for Democracy?

Islam is still a young religion (610 C.E) where modernity has been poured on top of instead of naturally weaved into the fabric of its doctrinal debates and theocratic jurisprudence.

Islam has had many troubles attempting to institutionalize theocratic political systems that are workable for larger nation-states. The current debate concerning this topic is ongoing and deeply internal to the testament to the length Muslims are willing to go to debate (and reform) Islamic text in order to create workable solutions to modern problems.

Neither Islam nor democracy are monolithic systems, as each can be molded to fit the societies in which they are being developed. A simple example would be the way Islam (as a political and cultural institution) has developed differently between countries like Indonesia (constitutionally secular following the Shafi’i Sunni branch) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni Wabbahi Monarchy), and to the distinct differences in the way democracy is practiced between Sweden (Parliamentary Direct Democracy) and the United States (Constitutional Republic with Representative Democracy).

Democracy is typically an organizing institution that attempts to reflect the will of the majority; it is not necessarily a principle-based system. Principles are later laced into the foundational structures of organized representation in order to adapt to the nature of distinct peoples whom share collective thoughts on how to organize just rule and representation.

Islam has its reformers; it will be a matter of politics and perseverance to mollify the severity of the breakdown of the archaic post-colonial set up that is pulsating throughout the Middle East. Current Tunisian President, Beji Caid Essebsi, can be cited as a modern Arab-Muslim reformer as he has successfully led his country to initiate institutional changes that have allowed a prescient post-independence order to emerge. This is due to Tunisia’s rich history of constitutional order and experimentation with the separation of state and religion starting with the post-independence presidency of Habib Bourguiba (1959-1987). These factors have clearly helped to aid in the development of the ongoing experiment in democracy in Muslim majority countries.

It is also important to cite one of the most potent reformers in Turkey, Fethullah Gulen. Putting aside the current controversy over unconfirmed attempts at proving his involvement in the July 15, 2016 coup in Turkey, Gulen has a long history of expertise in Islamist reformist thought and has been one of the most important influencers in using knowledge from the natural sciences to help stylize new thinking towards how contemporary thought can help bring new meaning to traditional doctrinal interpretations of Quranic text. His focus has been on facilitating the construction of a modern state-based system that can incorporate Islamic values based on conventional/traditional Islamic teachings that can be used to balance Secular Nationalism and customary Muslim morality.

This leads us to a perennial question: Is Western liberal democracy irrevocably at odds with the ordinances of Islam? Pluralism, which can be defined as an ideological construct for building coalitions and compromise between different/competing religious, ethnic, class, and social groups, is an essential ingredient in any form of democracy. Much debate has taken place between scholars whom believe that Islam provides too narrow a hierarchy of rules and procedures to allow non-Muslim minority ethnic/social/political groups to live within its conventionally understood dogmatically rigid religious and social customs. Although the late Turkish Ottoman Empire (circa 1299-1922) is commonly used as an example of Muslims using protectorate rights for minorities living within its boundaries, there has been no successive or successful modern Arab/Muslim nation-state to have refined and fully implement a normative bargaining process that distributes power, resources, and collective mobility throughout a diverse population.

Western adaptations of Pluralism are hard for Muslim societies to implement due to disputes that religious ethics within an Islamic Democracy would be dictated from clerics. Critics of a politicized Islam contend that clerics would govern by Islamic doctrine, which is understood as defining the boundaries of society by the accord of the ethereal and not that of the people. Opponents of this view, such as Muhammad Iqbal, Hasan al-Turabi, and Ali Shariati endorse the concept of a Theodemocracy (a theocratic political system) where three principles would underlie the implementation of rule by God and man: Tawhid (unity of God), Risala (prophethood), and Khilafa (Caliphate). Such a concept would not fit into the framework of secular societies and is contradictory to the customary narrative of pluralist/secular doctrinal debates concerning the nature of religion reigning over civil affairs. Under the terms of Pluralist Democratic nation-state systems, there are many vexing modern concepts, like civil/human rights and international treaty law, where serious debate must take place between diverse Islamic scholars. The principles of a Theodemocracy juxtapose Pluralists traditions, as it would allow for the unquestionable precedent of the ‘Sovereignty of God’ over the popular consent of citizens. Would this be a democracy for the people or the acquisition of modern institutions to represent the doctrinal legacy of God as understood in Qur’anic scripture?

In terms of a democracy the will of the majority must be synthesized through an institution with the ability to represent vast and often competing interests. The cultural domain of that institution will be innate within the historical underpinnings of a specific society. The current problem with the conception of an Islamic democracy is the fact that Islam is not just a cultural tendency or structure for spirituality; it is a complete rulebook that sets the tone of an individual’s life. Much of the traditional guidelines for an Islamic life do not easily correlate with democratic precedents, especially if there are large minorities within the society. Much of the debate concerning this measure will have to include the role of Islamic piety and how it reflects the current social order within the Middle East, thus allowing a healthy start on how society would like Islam to be reflected within a representative political establishment.

Furthermore, the ideology of Islamism is highly supportive of constructing political movements with the intention of restoring lost ideals. These lost ideals are constitutive elements of the Islamic political platform for changing the status quo in many parts of the Middle East. Much of this discourse seeks to go back in the past in order to understand what genuine Islamic values are and how to interpret them within modern narratives.

Can Democracy be Shaped for the Muslim World?

This venture encapsulates modernity and seeks not to overthrow its definition, but to reformulate its essence to build within the laws of Islam. Some of the main drivers of this project are Rashid al-Ghannushi and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Both seek to re-define the interests of Muslim society and coordinate such directives with the accumulation of political power. Others like Abd al-Karim Sarush of Iran talk about the formulation of an Islamist democracy by taking power away from the ruling jurists/clerics. He cites that if society is predominantly Muslim there will be an upward spiraling effect on the conditionality of the law. This is quite different from the construction of a Theodemocracy as it does not play upon the notion of upholding Shari’ah law but on proclaiming the values one can interpret from such a document.

More so, debate will continue to rage on whether Political Islam can usher in economic advancement, regional stability, and government transparency. Whether these values will be conceptualized as being a part of Shari’ah will be up to today’s Islamic political thinkers. Countries like Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have implemented Shari’ah but none of these countries are considered examples of operating successful governance models. All have varying levels of social discord, economic inequality, and political instability that diffuse any momentum for labeling them as stable societies instituted by Islamic law.

The development of such accordance between Islamic principles and democratic practicality will remain central to enacting a good governance model which visualizes institutionalizing the very best of both the Muslim and Western world.

Future Battles for an Unnamed Land

Contemporary world affairs will continue to be in a state of disorder due to the growing division between Western/Secular values and traditional Muslim culture. Western understanding of Secularism leads to a popular perception of modernity as encompassing absolute separation of religion and politics. How this separation is defined relates to historical relevance and contemporary social structures. The separation is then given the status of a value, which becomes inseparable from a definitive liberal society.

Most Western societies are unable to distinguish this as a reflection of choice, but rather think of secularism as an end in itself. This restrictive thinking allows for a rift to occur when trying to understand the role of Islam in modern Middle Eastern societies.

Islam embodies a specific set of principles that allow for the codification of popular ideals, but it is the diversity within the Islamic practice that will provide a blueprint for how it can be defined within a specific cultural landscapes. There is no formative force within Islam that would produce a homogenous political structure to the entire Muslim world.

Secularism will be defined quite differently within the unique doctrinal/political practices of the Muslim world. The divisions this will conjure within the current framework of the Middle East will ultimately be reflected in the West’s hostile reaction to such modes of thinking.

Since the inception of Islam there has been a continuous struggle in defining the scope of political power awarded to spiritual leaders. “Historically, Islam has been given a certain official status and preeminence in states in which Muslims ruled…The state—legislation, decrees, law enforcement, taxation, military power, foreign policy, and so on—were all regarded as the prerogative of the ruler(s), of political power, which was regarded as having its own imperatives, skills, ect., and was rarely held by saints or spiritual leaders” (Modood 2010). Some early Islamic societies installed a system of secularism due to the propensity for keeping religious ordinances outside of civil law but still allowing the essence of Islamic jurisprudence to preside over cultural sentiments towards the law. This historical precedent lacks a revolutionary revitalization due to the influx of globalization and modern confusion over identity/power politics currently on display in the Middle East. Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia being examples of the differing ways the Western-structured nation-state has broken down and led to the violent battles of Islamic infighting.

The battlefield violence is a symbol of Arab power politics where the winning group may eventually have the ability to shape new states according to their interpretation of Islamic law. The hegemony of Western attitudes towards the indigenous proclivity to restructure current systems of governance through mass violence has already created sensational discord among the competing ideologies of Secularism and Islamism.

Will the rise of modernity in the Middle East induce the centrality of Western values/secularism? Each civil society will produce its own understanding of the process of modernity, thus shaping its definition to fit multiple modes of operation. How we construct our values will determine what type of cage of control necessitates our livelihood. Secularism, pluralism, and democracy do not come with rigid rulebooks where states must conform themselves in order to implement a ‘correct’ form of each.

The development of Islamic nation-states, like all Western nation-states before it, must be set to the tone of a rational, civilizational discourse that allows Islam to be on an equal playing field with such Western ideals. Currently, this is an incomplete process fragmented by the confrontational process of ‘democracy promotion’ by Western governments. It is unfathomable to think that such a process would reproduce the identical political order of Western institutions. Modernity is not operational as a set of transformations that are neutral to social contexts. As Islam continues to evolve in the sphere of political ideologies and institutions, it is impossible to ignore modernity’s role in helping to narrow its role as a function in understanding how to initiate a Muslim context to Enlightenment ideals.

Modood, T 2010. e-International Relations, UK, viewed 8 June 2011,<>




%d bloggers like this: