Democracy in the scope of religions
Radwan Masmoudi 11 January 2013

Rise of Religion

We started seeing young people going to the mosques in increasing numbers. We also started seeing women and girls wearing the veil. Both of these acts were considered acts of challenging the government and the ruling elite, which reacted by cracking down very harshly on anyone who was religiously observant. This crackdown in fact helped to make this movement even more popular as people have a tendency to sympathize with people who are oppressed, especially if they are oppressed for their religious beliefs. Since the early eighties, Islamic movements, tendencies, practices, and observance of Islamic values have increased tremendously, not only in the Arab world but throughout the world in general, and religion has become an important part of our life and our culture, both as individuals and as societies. Human beings are not only materialistic animals. We are also spiritual creatures, and belief in God and in spiritual values and principles (that are bigger than ourselves and our material and physical needs) is a very important part of our lives. This is why Islamic movements and Islamic political parties (i.e. political parties that advocate respect for religious values and practices) are on the rise and their popularity is rising across the Arab world.

Rise of Democracy

Simultaneously, and in the past 30-40 years, we witnessed throughout the Arab world and the world in general the rise of the values of freedom and democracy, as an urgent need and requirement for dignity, decency and human rights. For many decades, people in the Arab world thought that the newly independent states or regimes – that were established after gaining independence from European colonizers – would be capable of providing economic development, social justice, dignity, and independence from foreign dominance without necessarily providing freedom or democracy. People were willing to give up (at least temporarily) their demands or aspirations for freedom or dignity, in exchange for economic development and stability. However, after 40 to 50 years of these newly-independent states and regimes, we all found out that these regimes became more and more oppressive and corrupt, as well as increasingly isolated from the legitimate demands and aspirations of the people. Over a period of time, the people realized that without freedom and democracy, not only is there no dignity and no human rights, but also there is no real sustainable economic or social development, and there is no way to stop or fight the endemic and spreading cancer of “corruption”. So, the demands for freedom and democracy became louder and stronger, and the people who were willing to forgo their human and democratic rights for a while, were now demanding their human right to freedom and democracy, and were willing to die for it. This is why the Arab revolutions and Arab awakening occurred. Because for the first time, the demands for social and economic justice were closely tied to the demands for real, genuine, and sustainable freedom and democracy.

Marrying Democracy and Religion

So at this critical juncture in the history of the Arab world and of the Islamic world, more generally, the main challenge that we all face is: how can we succeed in building a strong, thriving, and successful democracy that respects the freedom and the dignity of all the citizens (no matter what their religion, gender, age, color, or ethnic background is), while at the same time respecting the religious values and principles of the majority of the citizens, which are overwhelming Muslim. What does a democracy that respects Islamic values mean exactly (some people prefer to call it an Islamic or Muslim democracy, although that term is not yet clear or well defined)? How can we respect Islamic values without imposing them on the people, while also respecting the individual rights and freedoms of all citizens without forgetting or contradicting our Islamic values and culture? What is the role of religion in society, and what is the relationship between religious values, scholars, and institutions on one hand and political values, leaders, and institutions on the other?

These are the main questions and challenges that are facing the Arab world today, especially in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the three countries of the Arab Awakening that are now building new political systems and structures and writing new constitutions.

From the outset, let me say that I am cautiously optimistic that we will succeed in providing the right answers and in building real democracies, but that this will not be easy, it will take time, and we will need the support of all our friends in the rest of the world who want to see democracy and freedom succeed in the Arab world.

The good news is that we do not have a clergy (or a church per se) in the Islamic/Sunni world, and therefore, no one really wants a religious state or a theocracy in the Arab world. People do not want a secular dictatorship that keeps religions and religious values at bay or at home, but they also do not want a religious dictatorship that imposes religious beliefs or practices on the people.

In order to succeed in this very difficult and historic transformation, we need to “internalize” the values of freedom and democracy into our cultural and religious values. It must become clear to the overwhelming majority of citizens that democratic values, principles, and institutions are not only compatible with Islam, but are part and parcel – or fully mandated and required – by Islamic values and principles. Democracy is not only compatible with Islam, it is the only political system that is compatible with Islam.

So, how do we “internalize” democracy within our Islamic values and principles? I believe this is a crucial component for the long term success of democracy in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and I believe this can be done through a rigorous and comprehensive “Ijtihad” (re-interpretation of Islamic texts based on the current needs and realities) focusing on the following core Islamic principles:

1. The principle of Shura (or consultation) which is mentioned and emphasized in the Qur’an as a requirement and characteristic of believers . We can easily make the case that Shura is a value and principle that lacks specific tools and mechanisms, and that in fact democracy offers the best tools and mechanisms to conduct real shura in the 21st century and in the context of large nation states that includes millions of people, different cultures, ethnicities, and religions.

2. The principle of freedom (al-hurriya) which is fundamental in Islam and in every religion since without freedom, religion has no meaning. The Qur’an teaches us in many verses that human beings must have the choice to believe or not to believe and that without this freedom, religion becomes meaningless.

3. The principle of Justice which is also fundamental in Islam and this word is mentioned over 300 times in the Qur’an. True justice is of course a human value and aspiration throughout the centuries, and Islam strongly emphasizes the need to be just towards everyone – every human being without exception – and not to oppress or transgress against others. We can, I believe, easily make the case that democracy is the best system to provide real justice and to treat all citizens with justice, equality, and dignity.

4. The principle of Khilafa and by that I do not mean the idea of Caliphate, as popularly believed, but the idea that we are all representatives or vice-gerents of God on earth… Not a particular individual or class of people, but all of us as human beings and as individuals. Neither God nor the prophet (pbuh) have appointed anybody to rule over us. Rather they left this task and this responsibility to all of us as “representatives of God on earth”, so no one can claim to represent God on earth, and the only peaceful way to solve our differences of opinions about religion, politics, or culture, is through the democratic process. Peace after all is the ultimate goal of Islam and of all major religions, and democracy is the only peaceful way to resolve political differences or disputes.

I believe that these four core Islamic principles, if properly understood and developed, can help us internalize democracy in our culture and strengthen these principles in Arab/Islamic societies. I also believe that this “internalization” of democratic values and principles with Islamic values and traditions is going to be an essential requirement and prerequisite for the long term success of democracy in the Arab and Islamic world, starting of course with Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

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This article summarizes a paper presented by Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, at the International Conference on “Religion and Democracy in Europe and the Arab world” organized on 29-30 November 2012, at the Lebanese American University – Byblos- Lebanon.