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Commentary

Can Fundamentalist Islam and Democracy Coexist in a Country?

Yes: Free elections and majority rule are compatible with the Koran.

March 20, 2000|MAHER M. HATHOUT | Dr. Maher M. Hathout is a senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council

It is clear that democracy is not expressed or implemented in the same way in different countries or different stages of history. Democracy in Scandinavia did not confront any contradiction with socialism, while in the United States, democracy is intertwined with capitalism and a free-market economy. Likewise, Islam was adopted by different cultures and, at different times, interpreted in different ways.

Comparing Islam and democracy is invalid because the essence of these terms relates to different aspects of life. Islam to its adherents is devotion to the omnipotent, supreme God that will be expressed in a way of life that reflects his mercy, justice and peace for the world. A fraction of this structure comprises the guiding principles of how to organize and conduct the affairs of our society.

Democracy, on the other hand, is one of the different human trials in quest of the best way for a society to produce its government and to regulate the relationship between the ruled and the rulers in a way to reflect the will and protect the interests of the people.

Comparing between Islam and democracy is not comparing apples to oranges but rather comparing apples to the idea of farming. We cannot say they are contradictory, but that they are incomparable.

Does the practice of democracy in one or more of the forms it has been practiced contradict the belief in or the teachings of Islam? Does Islam accommodate and lend its approval to democratic methods of governance?

To answer these questions we have to reconstruct the ideas to reach their basic elements. What are the basic elements of modern democracy? The right of people to freely elect their government, to dissent from their government, to be guaranteed individual rights and civil liberties and to be assured of a check-and-balance system of powers. Government makes its decisions on majority rule, taking into consideration the interests of people through consultation with the people, the modern form of which is conducted through public opinion polls.

Would Islam accommodate such a methodology of ruling? As a committed Muslim and a firm believer in democracy, I say the answer is yes, without contradiction. Three basic points are typically misquoted to claim that democracy is incompatible with Islam.

* In democracy, supremacy is to people while in Islam, supremacy is to God. A group called the "Khawaarij" raised this attractive slogan early on in the history of Islam. When Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, accepted human arbitration on the issue of succession of the prophet, he described this statement as "saying a truth to achieve falsehood." God will not physically rule, but the will of God is represented in the collective will of the people. So the ruler is not representing God. In fact, there is no institution in Islam that claims it represents the authority of God. The teaching of Islam is that the people have the final say over the government. If they don't lend their approval to the ruler, then the ruling is nullified. In the final analysis, there is no real contradiction between the concepts of democracy and the principles of Islam.

* The separation of church and state. There is no church to start with in the structure of Islam. The ulema (scholars) are not above the law. Throughout the history of Islam, the ulema educated, motivated and criticized but did not become part of the government. The situation in Iran is an aberration in the history of Islam, and it is a new experiment that cannot yet be evaluated.

* We can change the constitution in a democracy but we cannot change the Koran. But only a vast, undisputed majority can change the U.S. Constitution. If a vast, undisputed majority wanted to change the Koran, this majority then ceases to be Muslims. In other words, Islamicity of such a society is no more, and the debate on the role of the Koran becomes moot. Similarly, if the majority of Americans decided to disregard the forefathers' intent and adopt Marxism, then this country would cease to be a democratic state, and any argument about its democratic nature becomes irrelevant.

There is no reason, therefore, to consider that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive. There is also no reason to say that Islam is democratic or that democracy is Islamic. But we can say that the belief in Islam and following its letter and spirit will naturally lead to pick democracy over autocracy or theocracy.

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