Modern Islam and Democracy
Note: The following text was presented as a speech at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, in November 2007. A version of the text has been published in the Regent Journal of International Law [ Virginia Beach, VA ], Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2008. Unfortunately, although a written copy was submitted by the author, the printed text was edited incompetently, with insertion of footnotes to material unknown to the author, distortion of footnotes supplied by the author, and similar offensive errors, rendering some of the printed text nonsensical. As author of the text I hereby disclaim any connection to the text as printed in RJIL and caution interested readers not to cite it without consulting me. The following is the only authorized version of the text.
The compatibility of Islam and democracy is frequently debated in the West today, but in a highly-distorted way. Very little discussion of this topic is based on empirical evidence, such as the role of Islam in Indonesia or of the Muslim minority in India, both of which are democracies with large populations.
Further, the debate, such as it is, is plagued with misconceptions, such as:
· Falsely describing Qur'an, the Islamic revelation, as a document from which interpretation is excluded.
· Accepting fundamentalist interpretations of Islam as the only authoritative readings of the religion and its history.
· Claims that any land ever held by Muslims and then conquered by non-Muslims is alienated and necessarily subject to reconquest.
In reality, the topic of Islam and democracy often appears as a surrogate for other issues. I would therefore pose the question: what are we really talking about when we debate Islam and democracy? In my view, this debate is a cover for two other, simpler questions.
The first question appears on the global level – that of the completion of the entry of the worldwide Muslim community into the universal system of capitalism and democracy. I have defined this process in terms of the establishment of entrepreneurship, accountability, and popular sovereignty in the Muslim world.
I do not believe there is any intrinsic obstacle – particularly any element in the faith of Islam – preventing the full integration of the Muslim countries into the world economy or into modern civilization. The Prophet Muhammad aleyhisalem himself was a caravan merchant; the Arab and Persian Muslims were among the great trading nations of the world, along with the Chinese, Jews, Greeks, and the Scandinavians. Islam is a religion that upholds social order and stability, and should not embody any problem for either accountability or popular sovereignty.
What, then, went wrong, in the idiom of Bernard Lewis, whom I greatly respect as the patron of intelligent Islamic studies in the West, but with who I have occasion to disagree?
In my view, Islamic civilization did not take a mistaken turn, or was otherwise deflected from the path of progress. Rather, drawing on the work of the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, I believe we can discern a pattern in which excessive wealth and urbanization undermined the creative initiative of the Muslim empires. Islam dominated ancient, crowded, societies that held a monopoly over the main trade routes – eastern consumer goods such as silk, as well as spices, gold, and slaves. Progress had always been slow in the ancient world.
The rise and decline of the Muslim empires was inevitable. But the slow pace of Muslim modernization was also unarguably aggravated by two apparently contradictory, but in reality complementary phenomena: European colonialism and the emergence of the modern petroleum industry. I do not agree with those who argue that European colonialism alone held the Muslim societies back. Rather, I believe in the spirit of Ibn Khaldun that the immense riches created by the oil markets, especially by supporting the Wahhabi sect in the Saudi kingdom, have reinforced passivity, lethargy, and social disintegration in the Muslim world. At the same time, I affirm that there is every reason to anticipate that these negative social characteristics will be overcome, and that the Muslim world will undergo a revival – as I have put it elsewhere, a new Renaissance.
In the West, we find the second major question – that of whether Muslim minorities may function responsibly in majority non-Muslim polities. A wide stream of demagogic chatter has, from both Muslims and non-Muslims, proclaimed that Islam is incompatible with integration into the West. But this is an inaccurate and ahistorical attitude.
From the viewpoint of Muslim authorities, it is clear that Muslims who emigrate to the West are required to accept the legal standards of the countries to which they move, and to live there peacefully and responsibly, showing a good example to their non-Muslim neighbors. To quote the authoritative volume of Islamic law inspired by the Iraqi Shia theologian, Ayatollah Sistani, A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West, "If [a Muslim] has given [a non-Muslim government] a commitment – even if indirectly (as is implied in the immigration documents) – to abide by the laws of that country, it is necessary for him to fulfill his commitment." Muslim violations of and challenges to common law in Western countries were rare until the rise of agitation for radical interpretations of Shariah or Islamic sacred law, at the end of the 20th century.
Traditional Islam, both Shia and Sunni, teaches that Muslims should not emigrate to non-Muslim lands unless they are prepared to obey the laws and accept the customs of their new homelands, except those that directly contravene Islam, such as drinking alcohol or consuming or using forbidden dietary products. But there is no country in the world that requires its citizens to drink alcohol or eat pork. Muslims are also cautioned against remaining in countries that forbid Muslim teaching and observance – but there is no country today that bans the faith of Islam or, in the language of the traditional law, "interferes with the call to prayer."
It is therefore a misapprehension to believe that traditional, conservative, mainstream Muslims cannot accept the political institutions and authority of non-Muslim countries. The standing of Muslims whose land has been overwhelmed by non-Muslims may be seen as different from that of Muslim immigrants. But while a body of Islamic jurisprudential opinion (fiqh) holds that Muslims should voluntarily leave countries that have fallen under non-Muslim rule, many historical exceptions to this exist. There are significant precedents for Muslims living, working, serving in armies, and otherwise maintaining a normal life under non-Muslim authority.
An important example in this context is provided by tsarist Russia. I am no defender of Russian imperialism; I am proud to cite my record in supporting the people of Afghanistan in their righteous struggle against Soviet invasion, and also in assisting the Chechens in their combat against revived Russian aggression. But as a historian of Russian politics, Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, recently has written in The New Republic "Islam's continuous presence within its current borders makes Russia Europe's oldest and largest Muslim nation." Reviewing the recent volume For Prophet and Tsar, by the historian Robert D. Crews, Aron describes, in the Muscovite empire, "a rather sophisticated policy of state support of 'official' Islam, in which Islamic clerics were granted a substantial degree of power and autonomy in religious, cultural, and communal matters." Empress Catherine the Great initiated state recognition of Islam, with the establishment of an "Ecclesiastical Assembly of the Muhammadan Creed" in Ufa, the capital of the Bashkirs, a Turkic people living in Russian-controlled territory. Bashkirs presently make up approximately a third of the population of Bashkortostan, a unit of the Russian Federation.
The tsarist dominion was not a democracy, but this example shows that Muslim political representation and participation may be neither dangerous for a non-Muslim state nor for the faith of Muslim believers.
The same observation may apply to military service by Muslims in a non-Muslim state. Aron notes that the Bashkirs "passed the ultimate test of loyalty," serving as cavalry in warfare with the Swedes and against Napoleon. In addition, the Russian empire and the kingdoms of Lithuania and Poland employed Tatar (Kipchak Turkish) mercenaries, further showing that the loudly-repeated argument that Muslims cannot obey the commands of non-Muslims is nonsense. Political representation of the Tatars went along with this role. I myself have visited and prayed at the Tatar Cemetery in Warsaw . A small but important Tatar remnant survives today in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus while, as in the past, the Russian Muslim community is the largest in Europe.
An important corpus of Islamic opinion as to the participation of Muslims in a political order ruled by non-Muslims also comes to us from the example of Bosnia-Hercegovina, a Balkan nation transferred from Ottoman imperial rule to the authority of the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary in 1878. Let me make clear that in discussing Bosnian precedents I do not refer to the calamitous situation of " Dayton Bosnia" – the ravaged statelet created by the Dayton negotiations that ended the Serbo-Bosnian war of 1992-95.
The Habsburg regime, like Tsardom, was a monarchy, not a democracy. But Austria-Hungary allowed greater ethnic and religious autonomy than Russia to its extremely diverse – one might say "assorted" – populations. The Austrian theory of national autonomy, according to a Spanish expert on the nationalist movements of the early 20th century, Andreu Nin, held that "it is wrong to demand that a nationality should have the right to form a State… It is consequently necessary to create a system of independent organizations: the nation is a 'personal association.' The complexity of present day economic relationships and the ease of communications encourage constant migration within multi-national States, with the result that those who leave their native land are considered foreigners and receive worse legal treatment. 'No nation can be confined to pre-determined limits.' Therefore the principle of nationalities is fundamentally anti-national. According to [the Austrian politician Karl] Renner, a solution will be found through a 'personal,' not a territorial principle. 'Nations should organize, not according to territorial units but as associations of persons, not as States but as peoples.' "
The Austrian attitude toward religion, embodied in the kultusprotektorat or system for subsidy and administration of religious communities, paralleled that applied to national communities. Islam, like Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism, was treated as a "personal association."
This policy was reinforced in the 19th century, in response to rising Slav nationalism and the need to counteract it, by offering Habsburg subjects who were Muslims political and cultural privileges absent from the competing Romanov realm. A Bosnian Muslim theologian, Fikret Karcic, in a volume that appeared in English in 1999, was among a group of colleagues who have produced detailed and extensive commentaries on the integration of the Bosnian Muslims into the Habsburg order.
As Karcic has noted, when Bosnia passed from Ottoman to Habsburg rule, the power of the Turkish caliphate over the country were limited to mention of the Sultan during Friday sermons, the display of the Turkish flag on the minarets of mosques on religious occasions, and the continued circulation of Ottoman money. But Karcic admits that the Bosnian Muslims were "left to deal with their new rulers alone." At the same time, while the Habsburg authorities directed that special attention be granted in Bosnia-Hercegovina to the interests of the Bosnian Croats, who were Catholics accounting for about 25 percent of the population at that time, the Muslims were recognized by the new rulers as "the relatively most progressive and most enlightened" element in the population.
The Habsburgs adopted a policy of modernization that included maintenance of Muslim religious education. The Bosnian Islamic clergy embraced this opportunity and established a new model for Islamic schools, including education for girls. The Austrian authorities and Bosnian Muslim clergy also reorganized Islamic jurisprudential training, establishing a Shariah Judicial Academy with a five-year curriculum combining Islamic and Austrian law.
Above all, Karcic points out that "from the 5th/11th century onward large concentrations of Muslims had lived under Muslim rule." In response to this reality, earlier Bosnian Muslim authorities pointed out that the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence had consistently held that Muslims were not obligated to migrate from or defy the state in territories conquered by non-Muslims so long as fundamental religious rights existed, especially the freedom of prayer and application of Islamic law in a limited area of family relationships, such as marriage and inheritance.
Recognition of Islamic family law is under debate in Western societies today but does not intrinsically constitute a threat to a democratic polity – although the question includes, at present, significant challenges.
In the first seven centuries of Islamic history, Shariah was treated as a "universal" legal standard, and was applied, to the extent possible, to all aspects of life. Traditional Shariah today – throughout the Muslim world except in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and some radicalized areas of other countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, and Nigeria, as well as in non-Muslim countries, is "personal" – limited to religious observance by Muslims, along with elements of family law.
After the rise of the Turkic and Mongol-Persian (Ilkhanid) Muslim empires in the 13th century, the status of Shariah changed in Islam. Shariah ceased to be "universal." The Turks and Mongols accepted Islam and the authority of Shariah in religious issues such as prayer ritual, male circumcision, charity, fasting, burial, and principles of belief. But they refused to give up their own systems of customary law, which had evolved in Central Asia over millennia. The Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566), known to Muslims as "Suleyman Kanuni" or "the law-giver," promulgated a legal code separate from Shariah, based on Turkish customary law, and which removed criminal and other state administrative affairs from religious jurisdiction. This Ottoman "secular law" existed in a parallel status with Shariah, although Ottoman Muslim clerics offered the argument that the secular laws were part of Shariah. Because the Ottoman state was the most powerful Muslim state in history, traditional Shariah came to be identified with such a "diversity of law." That is the meaning of traditional Shariah today: a Shariah applied voluntarily to the personal practice of religious observance, family issues, and finance, and not to crime or governance.
The issue of Islamic personal law in Western societies has been badly distorted by the proliferation of aggressive, radical religious interpretations, and the introduction of Shariah canons, even the most innocuous, in a non-Muslim-majority environment has a predictably controversial character when compared with the preservation of an existing such legal standard. An aspect of the problem that has not been treated with appropriate seriousness is that the state of Israel supports Shariah courts for Israeli Arab Muslims who desire recourse to them in family affairs.
Traditional Shariah includes areas of tension, notwithstanding its personal character. In traditional Shariah, marriage, sexual relations, divorce, and remarriage are generally seen by traditionalists as determined by religious law rather than civil or customary law. Laws against polygamy, which is permitted in Islam, are generally obeyed by traditional Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, but some traditional Muslims in the West may decline to turn to Western courts regarding marriage, divorce, or the settlement of inheritances. Most important, however, women's rights are vulnerable to abuse in traditional Shariah. Traditional Shariah upholds women's rights de jure in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and related issues, and amelioration of injustices to women may, ideally, be accomplished in Muslim countries as well as in the West by recourse to different legal and other public fora, both religious and secular.
But certain abuses against women remain a significant issue in many, but not all, Muslim cultures. For example, arranged or compulsory marriages, forcible divorce between members of "inappropriate" tribes, so-called "honor killings," and female genital mutilation (FGM) are unknown among Bosnian Muslims, who are highly European in their outlook, and FGM in particular is limited to Arab and African countries. Still, traditional Shariah in the broader Muslim world is contradictory on the question of arranged or non-consensual marriages, recommending against marriage without the consent of the bride, but lacking clear guarantees of a woman's own choice. Shariah traditionalists in countries afflicted by so-called "honor" murders and FGM consider these to be tribal customs unrelated to or opposed by religious law. Traditional Shariah calls for personal modesty in men and women alike but does not demand the imposition of extreme body covering or other radical practices on women.
The standing of all forms of family Shariah is presently in question in Muslim as well as non-Muslim societies. How moderate and traditional Muslims will address the legal vulnerabilities of Muslim women is unpredictable. Traditional Shariah is based on the encouragement of pluralistic debate among experts, grounded in thorough study of authorities and precedents, as well as recognition that Shariah and secular law have coexisted in Muslim countries for centuries, and that some situations fall outside religious law. Reform of traditional Shariah to reinforce women's rights cannot be excluded, but nor does it necessarily offer a solution, especially if a reformed traditional Shariah is presented as a harmless or even progressive factor, in a radical strategy for the institutionalization of Shariah in Western countries. The future of Shariah in general, aside from clearly individual matters of ritual, diet, finance, and personal hygiene, is difficult to predict.
The intersection of Shariah and customary law is additionally problematical. Ottoman secular laws, based on customary law, are considered to have represented a step away from narrow Shariah; Kurdish Sunni or Somali customary law perpetuates horrific atrocities including so-called "honor" murders in the first case and FGM in the second.
I would end my comments on Bosnia-Hercegovina by noting that, as indicated by Karcic, the passage of the country from Ottoman to Western governance was considered by some forward-looking Muslim clerics as irreversible, just as the incorporation of the Tatars and Bashkirs into Russia proved to be. It is therefore inaccurate to claim that all Muslims advocate for or expect the return to Islamic rulership of every territory in which Islam once held sway.
These precedents are not meant to justify European colonialism, much less the non-Muslim conquest of Muslim lands – nor the actions of European Christian powers in the absorption of the Bashkirs, employment of the Tatars as mercenaries, or annexation of Bosnia by the Habsburgs. Further, I would stipulate that the structures of Muslim community representation to government seen in other countries cannot be applied in the U.S., which bars official, state rights to faith communities. And, as previously stated, I would specify that introduction of limited aspects of non-statutory Islamic family law into the U.S. has likely been rendered impossible by the advocacy of extremism. Nevertheless, they provide lessons to Americans. They are intended to illustrate how Islam legitimates the acceptance by Muslims of non-Islamic political systems, and how Muslims with a pluralistic outlook dealt with the problem of being a formerly-ruling majority, or at least a plurality, in their native territory, but a minority in a non-Muslim empire. Both the cited empires were led by Christians hostile to Islam: Russia by Orthodox Christians and Austria-Hungary by Catholics.
Ibn Khaldun anticipated that as each of the Muslim empires, beginning with the Arabs, lost its original social vitality, it would be replaced by another representation of the Islamic polity. The great historian looked forward to new and unanticipated developments in human life. By contrast, the founder of the ultrafundamentalist, exclusivist, and violent Wahhabi cult, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, reacted to the fall of Arab power by preaching what I have called a "reactionary utopia," based on an artificial and unsustainable return to an imagined past.
If we apply the understanding of Ibn Khaldun to the present-day world, we can perceive that:
· It is a mistake to view Islam as a static reality forever and exclusively centered in the Arab societies.
· The era of monarchies and dictatorships has passed in the West and is ending in the Muslim world.
· Islam, given the restoration of internal religious and cultural pluralism, may progressively and fruitfully function within and according to the standards and canons of democracy: to repeat, it may come to fully embody entrepreneurship, accountability, and popular sovereignty. I take inspiration in this commitment from the image of "people power" that emerged from Pakistan before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto at the end of 2007 – that of a non-Shariah lawyer in suit and tie participating, along with his similarly-attired colleagues, in a demonstration against the regime of Pervez Musharraf. The emergence of the professional classes in Muslim countries – business, secular lawyers, and others committed to entrepreneurship and accountability – will, God willing, insha'allah, bring about the triumph of popular sovereignty.
· Islamic history is filled with positive chapters of cultural and religious coexistence and cooperation with between Muslims and non-Muslims, from the oft-cited example of medieval Spain to India and Southeast Asia , and these components from the global epic of humanity may help guide us all to a safer and more productive future.
I began this text, and will conclude, with reference to Indonesia , the largest Muslim country in the world in population (230 million). The country is home to an Islamic but not Islamist movement, Nahdatul Ulama (NU), organized in the 1920s and today counting 40 million members. NU has more adherents than the population in most Muslim countries. It was mainly founded by Hasyim Asyari, a local preacher, in reaction to the suppression of Sufism, or spiritual Islam, by Mustafa Kemal in Turkey, and the seizure of Mecca and Medina by Wahhabis.
NU played a major part in the Indonesian anti-colonial revolution after the second world war, an important but nearly-forgotten episode of modern Islamic history. Asyari's grandson was Abdurrahman Wahid, the first democratically-elected president of Indonesia, from 1999 to 2001, and founder of the Wahid Institute, which has an American partner, the LibForAll Foundation. Gus Dur, as Wahid is known, was educated at the global center of Islamic studies, Al-Azhar University in Cairo , as well as at Baghdad University. One of his achievements as president of Indonesia was to get rid of laws discriminating against ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia, and he is a consistent advocate of Muslim respect for other faiths.
Wahid has praised the concept of Islamic pluralism, writing, "there are those in the world today whose limited understanding of Islam, and whose actions, feed the cycle of anger, hatred and violence that threaten all humanity. The Wahid Institute and LibForAll Foundation believe that Indonesia can serve as a model for what many refer to as 'the smiling face of Islam,' and thereby help to untangle the knot of conflict that grips so much of the world." Wahid expresses "hope of a better future for Indonesia and the world, and the growth of a global civilization in which Muslims and non-Muslims alike respect one another, and come to a mature understanding and appreciation of Islam as a true blessing to nature and humanity." Little can exceed this summary of the moderate Muslim message, and its compatibility with democracy, for our time.
 Lewis, Bernard, What Went Wrong?, Oxford University Press, 2002. Reviewed by Stephen Schwartz in National Review, February 25, 2002, accessible at http://www.nationalreview.com/weekend/books/books-schwartz022302.shtml.
 See Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, tr. Franz Rosenthal, Princeton U.P., Princeton , 2005 ed.
 Abdul Hadi [based on the work of Ayatollah Ali Sistani], A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West, tr. Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, Imam Ali Foundation, n.p., 1999.
 See Marshall, Paul, ed., Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari'a Law, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham , Md. , 2005.
 Aron, Leon, "Jihadi Murat," The New Republic (Washington), November 5, 2007.
 Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2006.
 For details on the life of the Tatars in East-Central Europe today, see Norris, H.T., Popular Sufism in Eastern Europe, Routledge, London , 2007.
 Karcic, Fikret, The Bosniaks and Challenges of Modernity: Late Ottoman and Hapsburg Times, El-Kalem, Sarajevo, 1999.
 See Schwartz, Stephen, The Two Faces of Islam, Doubleday, New York, 2002.
 From the introduction, cosigned with LibForAll's C. Holland Taylor, to the Indonesian edition of the author's Two Faces of Islam, entitled Dua Wajah Islam (2007).