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Islam and Democratization

Reader comment on item: The Citizen of the 21st Century: How Far, How Fast?

Submitted by Kevin Donovan (United States), Jul 21, 2002 at 06:44

I do not think Islam and democracy that are necessarily incompatible. There have been times in Islamic history when proto-democratic ideas formed the basis for government. Even by the standard of their own history most modern Arab governments are repressive.

For example the pre-Umayyad, or "Rightly Guided", caliphs were selected by a consensus of the leading men of society after a vigorous debate. Further the powers of the caliph were sharply restricted in that they did not control the revenues collected by the various different communities nor could they levy men for war. They did not have the power to order the execution of innocent free Muslims; to do so was to overstep their authority and behave like a tyrant. These early caliphs were first among equals; a Byzantine chronicler described the caliph as 'protosymboulos' or first councilor. While they were not liberal democrats they were also not tyrants. Their political ideal was 'egalitarian and consultative' even if in practice they failed to live up to this fully.

The subsequent Umayyad caliphs (661-750 AD) became deeply unpopular because they failed to observe these limitations on their power and turned themselves into a dynasty of hereditary absolute monarchs. Their tyranny was so unpopular that they sparked several revolts and were eventually overthrown by the Abbasids who came to power on a platform of returning to the old political ideals.

If the West wishes to convince Arab societies that they should liberalize perhaps it should emphasize that liberalization does not mean abandoning their heritage but can include reaching back into the best of their own traditions. Or to see it another way, the modern Arab world is not only relatively unfree when compared to the West but is actually quite unfree when compared to its own past. The regimes of Iraq and Syria, among others, are monstrous by the standards not just of the West but of Islam too.

Further Arabs realize this; thus most of the Arab monarchies in recent years have been busy setting up elected parliaments or appointed consultative assemblies. These assemblies are not just emulations of Western democracies or capitulations to Western nagging but are tied into Islamic history and their ideas of what a legitimate Islamic polity looks like.
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