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  • Islam and Liberal DemocracyTwo Visions Of Reformation
  • Robin Wright (bio)

Of all the challenges facing democracy in the 1990s, one of the greatest lies in the Islamic world. Only a handful of the more than four dozen predominantly Muslim countries have made significant strides toward establishing democratic systems. Among this handful—including Albania, Bangladesh, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mali, Pakistan, and Turkey—not one has yet achieved full, stable, or secure democracy. And the largest single regional bloc holding out against the global trend toward political pluralism comprises the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

Yet the resistance to political change associated with the Islamic bloc is not necessarily a function of the Muslim faith. Indeed, the evidence indicates quite the reverse. Rulers in some of the most antidemocratic regimes in the Islamic world—such as Brunei, Indonesia, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Syria, and Turkmenistan—are secular autocrats who refuse to share power with their brethren.

Overall, the obstacles to political pluralism in Islamic countries are not unlike the problems earlier faced in other parts of the world: secular ideologies such as Ba’athism in Iraq and Syria, Pancasila in Indonesia, or lingering communism in some former Soviet Central Asian states brook no real opposition. Ironically, many of these ideologies were adapted from the West; Ba’athism, for instance, was inspired by the European socialism of the 1930s and 1940s. Rigid government controls over everything from communications in Saudi Arabia and Brunei to foreign visitors in Uzbekistan and Indonesia also isolate their people from democratic ideas and debate on popular empowerment. In the largest and poorest Muslim countries, moreover, problems common to [End Page 64] developing states, from illiteracy and disease to poverty, make simple survival a priority and render democratic politics a seeming luxury. Finally, like their non-Muslim neighbors in Asia and Africa, most Muslim societies have no local history of democracy on which to draw. As democracy has blossomed in Western states over the past three centuries, Muslim societies have usually lived under colonial rulers, kings, or tribal and clan leaders.

In other words, neither Islam nor its culture is the major obstacle to political modernity, even if undemocratic rulers sometimes use Islam as their excuse. 1 In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the ruling House of Saud relied on Wahhabism, a puritanical brand of Sunni Islam, first to unite the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and then to justify dynastic rule. Like other monotheistic religions, Islam offers wide-ranging and sometimes contradictory instruction. In Saudi Arabia, Islam’s tenets have been selectively shaped to sustain an authoritarian monarchy.

In Iran, the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 put a new spin on Shi’ite traditions. The Iranian Shi’ite community had tradition-ally avoided direct participation by religious leaders in government as demeaning to spiritual authority. The upheaval led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini thus represented not only a revolution in Iran, but also a revolution within the Shi’ite branch of Islam. The constitution of the Islamic Republic, the first of its kind, created structures and positions unknown to Islam in the past.

Yet Islam, which acknowledges Judaism and Christianity as its forerunners in a single religious tradition of revelation-based monotheism, also preaches equality, justice, and human dignity—ideals that played a role in developments as diverse as the Christian Reformation of the sixteenth century, the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century, and even the “liberation theology” of the twentieth century. Islam is not lacking in tenets and practices that are compatible with pluralism. Among these are the traditions of ijtihad (interpretation), ijma (consensus), and shura (consultation).

Diversity and Reform

Politicized Islam is not a monolith; its spectrum is broad. Only a few groups, such as the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia, are in fact fundamentalist. This term, coined in the early twentieth century to describe a movement among Protestant Christians in the United States, denotes passive adherence to a literal reading of sacred scripture. By contrast, many of today’s Islamic movements are trying to adapt the tenets of the faith to changing times and circumstances. In their own way, some even resemble Catholic “liberation theology” movements in their attempts to...