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  • Islam and Liberal DemocracyRecognizing Pluralism
  • Laith Kubba (bio)

In their respective essays, Bernard Lewis and Robin Wright ask how much capacity Muslim societies have for movement toward democracy, and how far democracy and Islam are compatible. Lewis broaches these questions by considering the practice of Islam among Muslims at large, while Wright concentrates on the views of two contemporary Muslim thinkers.

The question of Islam’s compatibility with liberal democracy can be viewed from varying perspectives. Current controversies among both Muslims and Westerners about the relationship between Islam as a revealed scriptural religion and democracy as a specific form of modern government imply that Islam promotes a specific format for politics and government. They imply as well that most of the governments under which Muslims have lived so far have been founded on Islamic principles. In many respects, it can be easily shown that neither the way of life of most Muslims nor the bulk of current Islamic writings is compatible with liberal democracy.

Islam teaches principles of freedom, human dignity, equality, governance by contract, popular sovereignty, and the rule of law that are compatible with but not identical to the cognate principles that belong to the intellectual heritage of liberal democracy. A look at history suggests that the main obstacles facing Muslims in their attempts to achieve open political systems and democratic governments are 1) a deeply rooted authoritarian political culture, and 2) manipulated interpretations of the Koran. [End Page 86]

The prospects for liberal democracy in Muslim countries can best be gauged by examining the development of their political culture. While the democratic polities of the West have their roots in a centuries-long process of evolution, modern political systems in Muslim countries have undergone a series of abrupt changes since the end of the old caliphate in 1924 and the coming of independence in the post-World War II era.

Cultures and Traditions

Because Muslims often consider the early traditions of Islam to be part of the original message of revelation, they typically look to the way Muslims lived in the past rather than attempt to construct new ways based on both the original teachings of Islam and the realities of modern life. Although the meaning of Islam cannot be limited to the perceptions of Muslims or equated with their practices, neither can it be understood separately from these perceptions and practices.

Islamic teachings have shaped the history and political culture of hundreds of millions of people over fourteen centuries, and have embraced a vast range of nations, cultures, sects, and schools of thought. Islam is potentially available to be claimed by all Muslims, including modernists and traditionalists, conservatives and liberals, rulers and oppositionists, Sunnis and Shi’ites, and so on. While it is true that Muslim rulers since the days of the caliphs have sought legitimacy from Islamic tradition, it is also true that this same stream of tradition has been invoked to empower opposition groups, justify violent takeovers, mobilize the masses in national struggles, call for “holy wars,” and more.

From earliest times, tribalism has marked Muslim political life. Later there came a chronic tendency to underappreciate constitutional and representative governance, and a consequent difficulty in developing democratic institutions and safeguards such as checks and balances. Historically, Muslims neither participated in choosing their rulers nor had a right to representation in government. Groups or individuals who seized power by force seldom met much in the way of popular resistance. This political passivity has its roots in religious teachings, and has gone far to perpetuate the tradition of authoritarian government in the Islamic world.

There were always Muslim thinkers who criticized overly narrow interpretations of the Koran and the negative side of traditional practices, but none ever had much success. Soroush and the many other thinkers who are striving on behalf of a broader and more enlightened understanding of the Islamic message belong to this line. Ghannouchi, meanwhile, like other leaders of Islamic parties, is attempting to go beyond dogma, ritual, rulings, and accidents of historical circumstance to outline a conceptual framework in which Islam’s basic understandings [End Page 87] are elaborated and brought together in new ways in order to form a cohesive...