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  • Muslims and Democracy
  • Abdou Filali-Ansary (bio)

The past is often held to weigh especially heavily on Muslim countries, particularly as regards their present-day receptivity to democracy. I do not dispute that past history has had an overwhelming and decisive influence in shaping the contemporary features and attitudes of Muslim societies. But the past that is most relevant today is not, as is commonly thought, the early centuries of Islamic history, but rather the nineteenth-century encounter of Muslims with the modernizing West.

It is widely believed that the key to understanding contemporary Muslim societies is to be found in a structure of beliefs and traditions that was devised and implemented at (or shortly after) the moment at which they adopted Islam. This view, often labeled as “Muslim exceptionalism,” holds that these societies are, as Ernest Gellner has elegantly put it, permeated by an “implicit constitution” providing a “blueprint” of the social order.1 This view has been subjected to intense criticism by a number of scholars, but it still influences dominant attitudes in academia and, with much more devastating effects, in the media.

This theory rests on two assumptions: first, that the past is ever-present and is much more determining than present-day conditions; and second, that the character of Muslim societies has been determined by a specific and remote period in their past during which the social [End Page 18] and political order that continues to guide them was established. This past has allegedly acquired such a strong grip that it can—and does—channel, limit, or even block the effects of technological, economic, or social change. In other words, for Muslims alone a remote past has defined, forever and without any possibility of evolution, the ways in which fundamental issues are perceived and addressed. The ultimate conclusion lurking behind these considerations is that, due to the overwhelming presence and influence of that particular part of their past, the societies in question are incapable of democratization. In other societies history may take the form of continual change, but in Muslim ones history is bound to repeat itself.

Apart from the many other criticisms that have been directed against this set of views, it should be emphasized that it is not based on any solid historical knowledge about the way in which this “implicit constitution” was shaped and implemented or imposed. Some of its proponents refer to a normative system that was never really enacted: They invoke the model of the “rightly guided” caliphate, which lasted, at most, for about three decades after the death of the Prophet. Many others cite instead the social order that prevailed during the Middle Ages in societies where Muslims were a majority or where political regimes were established in the name of Islam. In both of these versions, however, the power of this past to determine the present remains, by and large, mysterious. It is simply taken for granted, with no explanation given about why the past has had such a far-reaching and pervasive effect in these societies. To understand how the belief in these misconceptions was born and came to influence contemporary attitudes so powerfully, we must turn to a particular moment in modern times—the beginning and middle of the nineteenth century.

A Tenacious Misunderstanding

The earliest intellectual encounters between Muslims and Europeans in modern times took the form of sharp confrontations. Jamal-Eddin Al-Afghani (1838–97), one of the first and most prominent Muslim thinkers and activists in the struggle against despotism, became famous for engaging in a controversy against European secularists. He acquired a high reputation, especially for his efforts to refute European critics of religion in general and of Islam in particular. An essay that he wrote in reply to Ernest Renan bore the title “Ar-Rad ‘ala ad-Dahriyin” (“The Answer to Temporalists”). He used the term Dahriyin, which literally means “temporalists,” to refer to secularists. The word itself, which is of Qur’anic origin, had originally been applied to atheists. Al-Afghani attacked the positivist ideologues of his century, who were deeply convinced that religion was responsible for social backwardness and [End Page 19] stagnation and that scientific progress would soon lead...

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