Democracy, Secularism and Muslim Misconceptions

Any favourable mention of ‘democracy’ in an Islamic setting will invariably provoke an outraged response from some Muslims. “Democracy is shirk (polytheism) because it replaces the laws of Allah with man-made laws,” will be the essential argument. Ergo, any Muslim who suggests that the absence of democracy in the Muslim lands is a bad thing is therefore, in the minds of these Muslims, advocating the wholesale replacement of the shariah with a law that gives ascendency to the ‘laws of man’.

The typical knee-jerk opposition to the concept of ‘democracy’ is, in reality, born from a misunderstanding as to the meaning of the word rather than a real ideological opposition to it. This is because when a person says or writes ‘democracy’, many Muslims hear or read ’secularism’. These are two very different concepts and, despite what some may say, one does not necessarily imply the other.

The term ‘democracy’ is derived from the Greek words demos and kratos, meaning ‘people’ and ‘rule’. It was originally used to describe the early political system of the Ancient Greeks. Under this system, citizens of the Athenian city state were entitled to vote. Initially, citizenship extended only to an elite group but later expanded to include all men over the age of 20 (whilst excluding, of course, women and slaves). Laws were made in an Assembly where any citizen could appear, vote on laws and argue their points of view.

Later, other civilizations such as the Romans, English, French and United States would adapt or develop other forms of political systems that differed greatly in their detail but still held to a broad democratic ideal: that the people, or a subset of the people, would have some say in the selection of their leaders and/or the passage of law.

Democracy simply refers to a system where the people have some say, to an unspecified degree, in the running and organisation of their society. There is no axiom that states that a democratic system must secular or even capitalist. One need only look at the German Democratic Republic for evidence of that.

However, the problem that some Muslims have is that they perceive that because democracy means broadly ‘rule by the people’ that implicit in that is they can make whatever rules they like with no reference whatsoever to a ‘higher law’ such as the laws of Islam, Judaism or Christianity. However, this is what is known as ’secularism’ or, when applied to democracy, ’secular democracy’.

Secularism is the philosophical view that society and its institutions should be guided by reason and science alone, with no reference to religious belief or the supernatural. Legislation should be made based upon rational evidences or based upon social consensus, not spiritual requirements. For example, it is acceptable, secularism would concede, for gay marriage to be banned based on a ‘majority view’ that it was an undesirable institution to introduce in society but the nostrums of secularism would not allow gay marriage to be banned because the Old Testament forbids homosexuality.

It is, of course, true that nowadays most every democratic system is also secular. However, it is wrong to form one’s definition of democracy by surveying the contemporary political systems of the West. Democracy was invented long before the advent of secularism and both ideas appeared in response to very different issues in society. Democracy does not require that the laws formed by some sort of democratic process must be secular; and secularism does not require that a system should also be democratic. For instance, the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussain was a textbook example of a secular regime but it was certainly not democratic.

Just as some Musim intellectuals and scholars are considering the idea of an Islamic democracy, Christians are likewise considering the possibility of alternatives to the secular democracy. Australia’s own Cardinell George Pell gave a lecture in 2004 in which he pondered the question, “Is there only secular democracy?”. He asserts that democracy is simply a mechanism or a broad approach and doesn’t necessarily imply secularism.

….because democracy is never unqualified. We are used to speaking of “liberal democracy,” which as currently understood is a synonym for secular democracy; in Europe there are (or were) parties advocating “Christian democracy”; lately there has been much interest in the possibility of “Islamic democracy,” and the shape it might take. These descriptors do not simply refer to how democracy might be constituted but to the moral vision democracy is intended to serve. This is true even, or especially, in the case of secular democracy, which some commentators—John Rawls, for example—insist is intended to serve no moral vision at all. In his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II makes just this point when he argues that democracy “is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral’ value is not automatic,” but depends on “the ends which it pursues and the means which it employs.… [T]he value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes.” Democracy is not a good in itself. Its value is instrumental and depends on the vision it serves.

In other words, it is entirely possible to imagine a democracy that serves the moral ends of Catholicism — opposing, for example, late term abortion and legislating against pornography — just as it is easy to conceive of a democracy that serves no morals ends whatsoever.

If we accept now that democracy and secularism are distinct concepts, another objection will arise from the usual suspects: why must you talk about democracy — a foreign, infidel-invented political system — when you have Islam?

If one advocated communism or socialism as the political panacea for the world’s Muslims, then such an objection would have some merit. However, in the case of democracy, it is rather different because what Muslims understand as shura is, in itself, a form of democracy. And, I am sure, nobody from amongst the usual suspects would suggest that shura is un-Islamic or implicitly secular.

Sheikh Jaafar Idris, one of the few Islamic scholars who brings a deep and nuanced understanding of Western political and social theories to his work, defines shura as follows:

According to this purely linguistic meaning, shoora is no more than a procedure of making decisions. It can thus be defined as the procedure of making deci­sions by consultation and deliberation among those who have an interest in the matter on which a decision is to be taken, or others who can help them to reach such a deci­sion.

The important matter on which shoora is made can be either a matter which concerns an individual, or a matter which concerns a group of individuals, or a matter that is of interest to the whole public. Let us call the first individual shoora, the second group shoora, and the third public shoora.

Thus formally understood, shoora has nothing to do with the kind of matter to be decided upon, or the ba­sis on which those consulted make their decisions, or the decision reached, because it is a mere procedure, a tool you might say, that can be used by any group of people – a gang of robbers, a military junta, an American Senate or a council of Muslim representatives.

Is shura then democratic? Sheikh Jaafar continues:

Democracy, then, has also to do with decisions taken after deliberation. But this is what an Arab would have described as shoora. It might be thought that there still seem to be some differences between shoora and democracy, because the latter seems to be confined to political matters. But the concept of democracy can easily be extended to other aspects of life, because a people who choose to give the power of decision-making on po­litical matters to the whole population, should not hesitate to give similar power to individuals who form a smaller organization, if the matter is of interest to each one of them. The concept of democracy can be and is, therefore, ex­tended to include such groups as political parties, charita­ble organizations and trade unions. Thus broadly under­stood, democracy is almost identical with shoora. There is thus nothing in the primary or extended meaning of democracy which makes it intrinsically Western or secu­lar. If shoora can take a secular form, so can democracy take an Islamic form.

And that is what we speak of when we talk favourably about democracy: a democracy with an Islamic form. It doesn’t mean secularism. It doesn’t necessarily mean a multi-party democracy such as one finds in the United Kingdom or Australia. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that the right to vote is extended across the entire society; it might mean, as with previous Muslim states, that the right to elect the khalifah or ruler is delegated to the religious, commercial and cultural leaders of the society (known, in Arabic, as ahl al-hali wa’l ‘aqd).

Ultimately, of course, the most pressing issue facing the Muslims are not political but spiritual. The institutions and systems of governance in our societies will be reformed only when the Muslims who live under them are reformed. The Islamic state is the natural consequence of a critical mass of Muslim constituents choosing to live their lives according to Islam, rather than something than be explicitly engineered and constructed.