The protests in Tunisia and Egypt that led to the removal of the leaders of both countries have now spread to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran. According to some commentators, these protests reflect a relatively new push for democracy by the Arab peoples. In other words, the democracy that Western nations have enjoyed is now appearing in the Middle East. The implicit explanation for this “delay,” for some, is that most Arabs are Muslim and Islam is not compatible with democracy.
I would argue, however, that no religion is inherently incompatible with democracy and that there are historical markers that indicate that democractic principles (not always in their Western formulation that is so often taken as the only paradigm) existed early in Islamic history.
One example that is cited is the Islamic state that emerged in Medina during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. What is referred to as the Constitution of Medina established a society in which different communities (Muslims and non-Muslims) all consented to live by a social contract that reflected their various interests.
A second example is the caliph, the political and social sucessor the Prophet Muhammad, who ideally was suppose to be elected by the people and to hold public consultations. If the caliph did not adhere to the laws, he could be removed.
In the book Progressive Muslims, Ahmad Mousalli, a professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut, highlights that concepts like shura (consultation), ijma (consensus), hurriya (freedom), and al-huquuq al-shar`iyya (legitimate rights) are central in Islam and lead more towards democracy than authoritarianism. Moreover, justice and rejection of oppression are two themes that occupy an important role in Islamic thought, so authoritarian rule has no place.
The authoritarian regimes that have emerged in the Middle East are not a result of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Rather, they are the consequence of historical events and relationships that have shaped the reality of Middle Eastern countries over the last two centuries at least. In Islam, there is a call to reject oppression and to make sure that leaders are just and accountable–that is democracy.
What are your reactions to the protests? Do you think Islam and democracy are incompatible? Do you think an Islamic democracy is an oxymoron? What is the role of religion in a democractic society? Please share your thoughts below.