Islam and democracy: the impossible union
Iranian Muslim Amir Taheri says his faith cannot embrace western liberalism because our notions of equality are antithetical to the basis of Islam
In recent weeks there has been much soul-searching, in the Islamic world and among the wider Muslim diaspora about whether Islam is compatible with democracy. This sparked a debate hosted by Intelligence2, a forum I took part in last week. As an Iranian now living in a liberal democracy, I would like to explain why Islam and democracy are essentially incompatible.
To understand a civilisation it is important to comprehend the language that shapes it. There was no word in any of the Muslim languages for democracy until the 1890s. Even then the Greek word entered Muslim vocabulary with little change: democrasi in Persian, dimokraytiyah in Arabic, demokratio in Turkish.
Democracy is based on one fundamental principle: equality.
The Greek word isos is used in more than 200 compound nouns, including isoteos (equality), isologia (equal or free speech) and isonomia (equal treatment).
Again we find no equivalent in any of the Muslim languages. The words we have such as barabari in Persian and sawiyah in Arabic mean juxtaposition or separation.
Nor do we have a word for politics. The word siassah, now used as a synonym for politics, initially meant whipping stray camels into line. (Saâ€™es al-kheil is a person who brings back lost camels to the caravan.) The closest translation may be: regimentation.
Nor is there mention of such words as government and the state in the Koran. Early Muslims translated numerous ancient Greek texts, but never those related to political matters.
The idea of equality is unacceptable to Islam. For the non-believer cannot be the equal of the believer. Even among the believers only those who subscribe to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, known as the â€œpeople of the bookâ€ (Ahl el-Kitab), are regarded as fully human. Here, too, there is a hierarchy, with Muslims at the top.
Non-Muslims can, and have often been, treated with decency, but never as equals. There is a hierarchy even for animals and plants. Seven animals and seven plants will assuredly go to heaven while seven others of each will end up in hell.
Democracy means the rule of the demos, the common people, or what is now known as popular or national sovereignty. In Islam, however, power belongs only to God: al-hukm lâ€™illah. The man who exercises that power on Earth is known as Khalifat al-Allah, the regent of God. Even then the Khalifah, or Caliph, cannot act as legislator. The law has already been spelt out and fixed forever by God.
The only task that remains is its discovery, interpretation and application. That, of course, allows for a substantial space in which different styles of rule could develop.
But the bottom line is that no Islamic government can be democratic in the sense of allowing the common people equal shares in legislation. Islam divides human activities into five categories from the permitted to the sinful, leaving little room for human interpretation, let alone ethical innovations.
To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy should not be seen as a disparagement of Islam. On the contrary, many Muslims would see it as a compliment because they believe that their idea of rule by God is superior to that of rule by men, which is democracy.
The great Persian poet Rumi pleads thus:
Oh, God, do not leave our affairs to us
For, if You do, woe is us.
Islamic tradition holds that God has always intervened in the affairs of men, notably by dispatching 124,000 prophets or emissaries to inform the mortals of his wishes and warnings.
Many Islamist thinkers regard democracy with horror.
The late Ayatollah Khomeini called democracy â€œa form of prostitutionâ€, because he who gets the most votes wins the power that belongs only to God.
Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian who has emerged as the ideological mentor of Salafists (fundamentalists who want to return to the idyllic Islamic state of their forebears) spent a year in the United States in the 1950s. He found â€œa nation that has forgotten God and been forsaken by Him; an arrogant nation that wants to rule itselfâ€.
Last year Yussuf al-Ayyeri, one of the leading theoreticians of todayâ€™s Islamist movement, published a book in which he warned that the real danger to Islam did not come from American tanks and helicopter gunships in Iraq but from the idea of democracy and the government of the people.
Maudoodi, another of the Islamist theoreticians now fashionable, dreamt of a political system in which humans would act as automatons in accordance with rules set by God.
He said that God has arranged manâ€™s biological functions in such a way that their operation is beyond human control. For our non-biological functions, notably our politics, God has also set rules that we have to discover and apply once and for all so that our societies can be on autopilot, so to speak.
The late Saudi theologian, Sheikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Jubair, a man I respected though seldom agreed with, believed that the root cause of contemporary ills was the spread of democracy.
â€œOnly one ambition is worthy of Islam,â€ he liked to say, â€œto save the world from the curse of democracy: to teach men that they cannot rule themselves on the basis of man-made laws. Mankind has strayed from the path of God, we must return to that path or face certain annihilation.â€
Those who claim that Islam is compatible with democracy should know that they are not flattering Muslims.
In the past 14 centuries Muslims have, on occasions, succeeded in creating successful societies without democracy. And there is no guarantee that democracy never produces disastrous results (after all, Hitler was democratically elected).
The fact that almost all Muslim states today can be rated as failures or, at least, underachievers, is not because they are Islamic but because they are ruled by corrupt and despotic elites that, even when they proclaim an Islamist ideology, are, in fact, secular dictators.
Socrates ridiculed the myth of democracy by pointing out that men always call on experts to deal with specific tasks, but when it comes to the more important matters concerning the community, they allow every Tom, Dick and Harry an equal say.
In response his contemporary, Protagoras, one of the original defenders of democracy, argued: â€œPeople in the cities, especially in Athens, listen only to experts in matters of expertise, but when they meet for consultation on the political art, ie of the general question of government, everybody participates.â€
Traditional Islamic political thought is closer to Socrates than to Protagoras. The common folk, al-awwam, are regarded as â€œanimalsâ€. The interpretation of the divine law is reserved only for the experts.
Political power, like many other domains including philosophy, is reserved for the â€œkhawasâ€ who, in some Sufi traditions, are even exempt from the rituals of the faith.
The â€œcommon folkâ€, however, must do as they are told either by the text and tradition or by fatwas (edicts) issued by the experts. Khomeini used the word â€œmustazafeenâ€ (the feeble ones) to describe the general population.
Islam is about certainty (iqan) while democracy is about doubt. Islam cannot allow people to do as they please, even in the privacy of their bedrooms, because God is always present, all-hearing and all-seeing.
There is consultation in Islam: wa shawerhum fil amr (and consult them in matters). But, here, consultation is about specifics only, never about the overall design of society.
In democracy there is a constitution that can be amended or changed. The Koran, however, is the immutable word of God, beyond amendment or change.
This debate is not an easy one to have, because Islam has become an issue of political controversy in the West.
On the one hand we have Islamophobia, a particular affliction of those who blame Islam for all the ills of our world. Some Muslims regard any criticism of Islam as Islamophobia.
On the other hand we have Islamoflattery, which claims that everything good under the sun came from Islam. (According to a recent BBC documentary on Islam, even cinema was invented in the 9th century by a Muslim lens maker in Baghdad, named Abu-Hufus!)
This is often practised by a new generation of the Turques de profession, westerners who are prepared to apply the rules of critical analysis to everything under the sun except Islam.
They think they are doing Islam a favour. They are not.
Depriving Islam of critical scrutiny is bad for Islam and Muslims, and ultimately dangerous for the whole world. There are 57 nations in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Not one is yet a democracy.
We should not allow the everything-is-equal-to-everything-else fashion of postmodernist multiculturalism and political correctness to prevent us from acknowledging differences and even incompatibilities in the name of a soggy consensus. If we are all the same, how can we have a dialogue of civilisations?
Muslims should not be duped into believing that they can have their cake and eat it. Muslims can build successful societies provided they treat Islam as a matter of personal, private belief and not as a political ideology that seeks to monopolise the public space shared by the whole of humanity and dictate every aspect of individual and community life. Islam is incompatible with democracy.