Reconciling Islamic values and democracy
The sovereignty of God and that of the people often conflict in Muslim politics – but Turkey shows this needn’t be the case
The facts are undeniable. Wherever modern Islamic movements have come to power, whether through a popular revolution (Iran), military coup (Sudan) or civil war (Taliban in Afghanistan), they have invariably sought to drastically restrict personal freedoms and civil rights in the name of upholding the rule of God.
For example, article six of the Iranian constitution says that “the affairs of the country must be administered on the basis of public opinion expressed by the means of elections”. That certainly sounds promising and democratically minded but article two of the same constitution states that God has “exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate”.
How are these two articles to be reconciled? Well, in lieu of God – who it would appear has declined to take part personally in Iran’s parliamentary debates – this has, in practice, resulted in the unelected guardian council becoming the single most influential body in Iranian politics. All those individuals who stand as parliamentary candidates have first to be vetted and approved by the Guardian Council and it is certainly not shy in disqualifying candidates if it deems them to be insufficiently committed to “revolutionary values”.
The Guardian Council also has the power – which it exercises frequently – to veto any bill passed by the elected members of the Iranian parliament if it deems that it contravenes Islamic teachings.
It is an inherently unhappy and unstable state of affairs. But need it necessarily be this way? The Qur’an itself insists on the principle of shura (consultation) and Islamic law has long recognised ijma’ (consensus) as a source of legislation. Some Muslim thinkers have begun to argue that these principles can and should be reformulated to ensure that power is not allowed to be monopolised by the few. Professor Ahmad Moussalli – whose studies have concentrated on contemporary Islamic movements – argues that:
“Shura and ijma’ are two key doctrines that Muslims can use today for the religious development of democratic notions of government and politics as well as human rights … If charged with the interpretation of the divine word, then the community enjoys the only legitimate power; other powers and authorities are only derivative and subject to the approval of the community.”
How far could this go? I recall listening in London in the mid-1990s to Rashid al-Ghannushi, the exiled leader of the Tunisian Islamic movement, an-Nahda, saying that if the people of Tunisia freely voted to open nudist beaches in his homeland it would be incumbent on all to respect their wishes (though not necessarily to agree with the action).
In Turkey, members of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party – many of whose senior figures have their roots in Islamic political activism – have sought to resolve the sovereignty of God/people issue by declaring that the notion of God’s “ontological sovereignty” was quite compatible with the political sovereignty of the people.
The Turkish example is especially noteworthy as the progress of the AK party in an avowedly secular state is being carefully watched by other Islamic movements in the region.
Professor Ahmet Kuru, who has specialised in the relationship between Islamic groups and the secular state in Turkey, says:
“Islamic groups do not have monolithic and frozen relationships with secularism and democracy. Instead, these groups may and do reinterpret their political views and revise their attitudes towards secularism and democracy in a dynamic manner.
“The democratic process helps [in the] moderation of Islamic actors’ perspectives and discourses. Free, fair, and frequent elections are especially important to marginalise radical discourses and to empower realistic, pragmatic, and moderate voices.”
That seems to be an encouraging observation, while also providing an insight into how to help reduce the influence of extremist groups. Across the Islamic world, polls have repeatedly found widespread support in favour of the implementation of both democracy and Islamic values.
One suspects that if groups such as the AK party are able to continue to successfully deliver increased prosperity and freedoms to their people, this will do far more to undermine those in the region who rely on coercion rather than public support for their hold on to power.