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Islam and Democracy – what is the real question

  • Book Title:
 Islam And Democracy
  • Book Author:
Asef Bayat
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Islam and Democracy: What is the Real Question? by Asef Bayat – Book Sample

Introduction – Islam and Democracy

A major preoccupation of nineteenth century social theorists was to dispel the distinction between the religious and the non-religious. Now, after over a century of modernization, they are trying to differentiate between the religious and the more religious. This “over-religiosity”, nowadays couched in various terms such as fundamentalism, revivalism, conservatism, fanaticism or extremism, appears to represent a global trend, which involves most of the world’s major creeds. Yet in the West it has shaped a particular, negative thinking about Muslim societies in particular.

Undoubtedly, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and subsequent developments have greatly intensified Western anxieties over the “threat” of “Islamic fundamentalism”, and thus have reinforced more than ever the notion of the “peculiarity of Muslims”. Of course, the construction of “unique” Muslims is not new: it has been the hallmark of the so-called Orientalist outlook which Edward Said and others have so remarkably and critically taken up.

For Said and other critics, Orientalism represented a discursive apparatus that produced knowledge as an instrument of power, as a means to maintain domination.2 It is the story of how a host of travelers, novelists, artists, diplomats, scholars and now the media depict the Muslim Middle East as a monolithic, fundamentally static, and consequently “peculiar” entity. By emphasizing the “exceptionalism” of Muslim societies in general, they focus on narrow notions of (static) culture and religion as the context of historical continuity, and on individual elites or external forces as the source of (uncommon) change.

But how “peculiar” are the Muslim societies, if they are so at all? Are they so different as to require different tools for analysis? Can we, after all, even speak of such a thing as “Muslim societies”? By employing such a broad category, are we not in a sense re-Orientalizing Muslim societies and cultures, constructing homogenous entities that do not actually exist? While such questions remain legitimate concerns, I would like to suggest that Muslim societies can be understood in such a way as to serve as a useful analytical category.

I have proposed elsewhere that the terms “Islamic world” and “Islamic society”, used in singular abstract forms, may indeed imply that Islam is the central factor that shapes the dynamics of these societies.3 “Islamic society” becomes a generality which is constructed by others to describe Muslims and their cultures. It tells us the way in which others imagine how Muslims are and even how they should be. This worldview has been perpetuated in part by some Muslim groups (chiefly Islamists), who likewise construct a unitary Islamic landscape. In contrast, the designation “Muslim societies”, understood as plural and concrete entities, allows a self-conscious Muslim majority to define their own reality in an inevitably contested, differentiated and dynamic fashion.

Here the emphasis is not on Islam, but on Muslims as agents of societies and cultures, even if not of their own making. And “culture” is understood not as a set of static codes and conducts but as a series of processes, always changing, flexible and contested. These are the societies in which aspects of Islam, interpreted and adopted in diverse manners, have influenced some domains of private and public life – including the realms of morality, family relations, gender dynamics, law, and sometimes politics and the state. What is common among this differentiated whole is the claim of all Muslims (liberal or con- servative, activist or lay persons) to “true” Islam, to the sacred texts.

Yet “Muslim societies” – as concrete entities or in reality – are never monolithic as such, never religious by definition, nor are their cultures confined to mere religion. Indeed, national cultures, historical experiences, political trajectories, as well as class affiliation, have often produced differ- ent cultures and sub-cultures of Islam, religious perceptions and practices across and within different Muslim nations. And each “Muslim” (or pre- dominantly Muslim) country is comprised of people with various degrees of religious affiliations. In this sense, Muslim societies are quite similar to their counterparts in the developing world. Similarities are particularly compounded by the relentless process of globalization, which tends to pro- duce not only differentiation, but also many parallel structures and proc- esses between the nations of the globe.

Yet despite many structural resemblances, the Muslim Middle East (and now by extension Muslim world) is still measured by the “exceptional- ist” yardstick of which religio-centrism is the central core. So the region’s authoritarianism, “weak civil societies” and political culture are often attrib- uted to its main religion, Islam. Although “exceptionalism” is not limited to the Muslim Middle East – we also have “American Exceptionalism”, “Euro- pean exceptionalism”, and the “peculiarity of the English”, as E.P. Thompson called it – but in the case of the Muslim Middle East, unlike the others, this characterization has often led to the marginalization of this region from mainstream scholarly perspectives.

I think that at least three factors have contributed to the “exceptionalist” outlook in the study of Muslim Middle East today. The first is the continuing prevalence of Orientalist/essentializing thought in the West, particularly in the US, which seems to converge well with the interventionist foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. The second element is the persistent authoritarian rule by the local regimes (e.g. the Shah’s Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt), which have invariably been supported by many Western states, especially the USA. And the third factor has to do with the fact that within the Muslim region, there has been an emergence and expansion of Islamist movements that have often displayed socially- conservative and undemocratic dispositions. These positions and processes have given rise to countless claims and counter-claims around the infamous question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy.

The prevailing media and intellectual circles in the West perceive Islam at the root of the authoritarian polity in the Muslim Middle East.4 To them, Islam is patriarchal and lacks any concept of citizenship and freedom, since its belief in God’s sovereignty has diminished popular power. The religion of Muhammad, instead of being a private matter, is essentially political.5 Islam embodies, it is claimed, a “world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, open- ness and creativity are alien”.6 Such views have been energized by many home-grown Islamists who, in the name of their religion, suspect democracy as a “foreign construct” and suspend popular will in favor of God’s sovereignty. Let us call these Islamists “skeptics”. In contrast to the skeptics, there are the “optimists”, who tend to project an inherently democratic spirit of Islam, claiming it to be a religion of tolerance, pluralism, justice, and human rights.7 Rashid al-Ghanoushi, for instance suggests that “Islamic rule is by nature democratic”. According to optimists, the Quranic notion of Shura (consultation) is to ensure the compatibility of Islam with democ- racy, and its valuation of human beings by their piety is to imply equality In race and gender and free will. In addition, the God-given “sovereignty of……

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