Fri, Aug 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Trying to find a middle ground between Islam and democracy

By Muhammad Habash

I am often invited by religious authorities in the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia to attend meetings that are held to urge people to follow Islamic faith and law, while avoiding any debate connected to politics or political rights. Political rights, my hosts insist, are maintained by the ruling regimes themselves, and these follow the teachings of the Koran.

But recently an invitation came from the Faisal Center for Islamic Research and Studies, which actually wanted me to talk about democracy, or "good governance," as the participants called it.

Until recently, this topic was taboo in Saudi Arabia, where the regime doesn't allow any margin for debate and commands people to listen, obey and leave matters of government to their rulers.

It was obvious that the organizers' goal was to revive religious and political speech in order to find a middle ground between Islamic faith and democracy. I argued that, as many Islamic scholars have recognized, Islamic jurisprudence is compatible with democratic values. Every country that has chosen democracy has come closer to achieving Islam's goals of equality and social justice.

Democracy suffers in the Islamic world due to skepticism about everything that comes from the West, especially the US. Thus, some leaders view democratization efforts as a new form of colonialism or imperialism in disguise.

But the region's hesitancy to embrace democracy goes beyond mere fear of Western hegemony. There is a deep philosophical dispute about the nature of democracy. Some Islamic thinkers point to an inevitable contradiction between Islamic and democratic values. They argue that Islam requires submission to the will of God, while democracy implies submission to the will of people. This notion was clear in the writings of Said Kotb, who saw parliaments as preventing people from submitting to the rule of God.

Yet Kotb's understanding contradicts the established practices of the Prophet Mohammed, who created the first real state in the Arabian peninsula by declaring the Constitution of Medina, which stated: "Mohammed and the Jews of Bani-Aof [who were citizens of Medina at that time] are one nation." Thus, social relations were to be based on equality and justice, not religious beliefs.

Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed's most important political truce, the Hodibiah Agreement between his rising nation and the leaders of Quraish (the dominant tribe in Mecca at that time), stated clearly that "everybody is free to join the league of Mohammed or the league of Quraish."

Many non-Muslim tribes, like the Christians of Nagran, the Jews of Fadk and the pagans of Khoza'a, joined Mohammed's league and became part of the Islamic state.

All Muslim and non-Muslim tribes had equal rights and freedoms and enjoyed the protection of the state. Most importantly, Mecca was later opened to protect the pagan people of Khoza'a against the attacks of Quraish.

So it was not Mohammed's intent to build a theocratic or religious state under the rule of mullahs. He was establishing a democratic civil state where people were equal in rights and obligations.

Reconciling the true understanding of Islam and democracy will, I believe, lead to a full realization of the richness of the Islamic experiment. It could also add great vitality to the democratic experiment by bringing it closer to the Muslim street. But the Islamic mainstream must first realize the importance of democratic reform, which is possible only by clearly understanding the Prophet's message, which promises genuine solutions for every time and place.

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