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  • Islam’s Democratic Essence?
  • Ibrahim A. Karawan (bio)
Islam and Democracy. By John L. Esposito and John O. Voll. Oxford University Press, 1996. 232 pp.

The study of political Islam, already plagued by sensationalism, becomes especially contentious when the question is whether Islamist movements in predominantly Muslim societies help or hinder political democratization. Often in such debates, the term Islam itself becomes a shorthand expression used to convey diverse meanings and serve different objectives. Parts of the first chapter of the present volume appeared in the September 1994 issue of Middle East Quarterly as an essay called “Islam’s Democratic Essence”—a title that generated heated responses from those who disagreed with the claim that it implies. In the book, Esposito and Voll expand and elaborate on the core arguments of the essay. They seek to demonstrate that various Islamic governments and opposition forces have adopted a broad diversity of political strategies to serve their respective goals.

Their principal argument can be summarized as follows: In the Muslim world, pressures for Islamic resurgence and pressures for greater political participation are closely linked. The role, in such a context, of what the authors call “new Islamic movements” depends on whether [End Page 170] these movements are legal or not, whether they are reformist or radical, and whether regimes resolve to include or exclude them from the ambit of permissible political action. Instead of seeing Islamic political formations as monolithic and unequivocally antidemocratic, the authors argue that despite the common features existing among these formations, it is important to look at the different settings and strategic choices that incline Islamists toward or away from democracy.

In the rapidly growing literature on Islam and politics, this argument is not particularly new. What makes this study distinctive, however, is its refusal to seek an explanation in the realm of inexorable structural forces. Rather, it argues that the choices which leaders make matter, and that if they make the wrong choices, the political evolution of their societies will suffer accordingly. Instead of structural determinism, this book stresses the roles of political perceptions, cultural identities, and leadership orientations, and does so within a broader historical context that takes both continuity and change into account.

Esposito and Voll not only seek to prove that Islam and democracy are reconcilable, but also try to uncover the democratic potential within Islamic traditions. In the name of cultural authenticity, the authors argue, different societies are entitled to have their own, non-Western notions of democracy. Obviously, liberal democracy is not the only form of democracy. But one wonders if clerical Iran, dynastic Saudi Arabia, militarized Pakistan under the late General Zia ul-Haq, the Sudan under General Omar al-Bashir and Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, and Afghanistan under the Taliban have much to be proud of with regard to their paths to nonliberal democratization. Has the suppression of labor unions, professional associations, student governments, and clubs of judges and university professors in these countries been part of the blazing of a superior trail to political participation and cultural authenticity? The authors stress that “democracy is essentially a contested term” (p. 14), but the records of such Islamic or Islamist regimes hardly qualify them for serious consideration in such a contest.

Perhaps we ought to make a distinction between “saying” and “doing.” Over the last decade, virtually every political force in the Muslim world, no matter how authoritarian, has tended to talk about political pluralism and the transition to democracy. Often, they attach one caveat or another, speaking of “our traditions,” “our religion,” “our circumstances,” and the like. Analyzing such statements, some of which are made for public consumption and Western ears, is not a very useful exercise unless one keeps in mind the speakers’ histories and specific actions in concrete political contexts. Sheikh al-Turabi, who some once thought to be the very model of a liberal, enlightened Islamist, makes elegant statements about democracy, but the record of his regime speaks volumes about negating democracy. Under his partnership with General al-Bashir, the Sudan is a populist “Islamic democracy” where democratization [End Page 171] is understood as a statist mode of political mobilization quite similar to those used (albeit far...

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pp. 170-173
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