Thursday, June 26, 2003

Will Baude of Crescat Sententia has replied on the Islam and Democracy front. Unfortunately, his reply largely confirms the suspicions I had on the subject. He refers to the fact that in several countries, "powerful anti-Democratic elements are Muslim." What does this mean? Are there Muslim groups opposing democracy in the Arab world? Or is he concerned about the fact most of the nations there are dictatorships which happened to be ruled by Muslims? Given the fact that some of the most repressive regimes have historically been secularist, such as Ba'athist Iraq and Syria, why aren't they discussing whether secularism is compatible with democracy? I'm not literally suggesting that, but rather making a point.

Will is correct in pointing out that complex historical understanding is not always necessary in understanding these situations - I mainly linked to that post because as a historian it is where I see the most understanding develop. He also correctly points out that certain ideas originating in the West are very attractive to people in the Arab world. Still, some type of understanding is necessary, and the discussion as reported still doesn't seem to show much. Will's last paragraph is an example of this: "Most fundamentally, a lot of people want to install some European ideas and values and make them take root. Freedom of speech, worship and of the press, the legal right of women to drive cars, many things may be outside of the Islamic traditions that have evolved on their own. But other than the nebulous charge of 'cultural (or political) imperialism,' what's so bad about bringing European liberalism to a world that hasn't known it?"

Note how all that is good and right is held to be the unique property of European civilization, while Islam is stereotyped with all that is negative. Many of the basic freedoms Will refers to are not alien to Islam, but fundamental to it. Within the Islamic world, all Muslims are held to have a religious obligation to gain knowledge of shari'a and to take responsibility for the well-being of the community. Under the Covenant of Umar, "People of the Book" were allowed freedom of religious worship, and in practice this was extended to all non-Muslims under Muslim rule. Even today Iran, a country ruled by fundamentalists, guarantees Christians and Jews representation in Parliament (though Baha'is are presecuted).

Where are women not allowed to drive cars? In Saudi Arabia, certainly, but that is only one, arch-conservative nation in the Arab world, an Arab world that itself has fewer than 20% of the world's Muslims. Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country, and is led by a woman named Megawati Sukarnoputri. True, like all religions, Islam has been heavily influenced by patriarchy, but you cannot deny the importance of a figure like Aisha, one of the main transmitters of Hadith and leaders in the Battle of the Camel, or the Sufi mystic Rabi'a.

There are a couple of debates that could be held regarding Islam and democracy. Basically, some fundamentalists (my preferred term when talking to the general public) argue that the gates of ijtihad, or the use of individual conscience in striving to interpret shari'a, should remain firmly closed and that as God has provided all the laws we need, Parliament is unnecessary. However, this argument within Islam is seldom referred to in the West, where people tend to fall back on media-propagated stereotypes. Without a better understanding, however, attempting to forcibly change a society will only cause chaos. The Shah's forced Westernization policies were one of the causes of the Iranian Revolution, for example. Islam is a highly dynamic religion which encompasses a broad range of political and legal thought: Muslim law student al-Muhajabah blogs on such issues regularly. While many countries in the Islamic world have problems, they should not be so readily identified as representing the essence of Islam which the members of this forum will rush in to fix.


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